Is It Ethical To Book Backup Flights On Another Airline In Case Your Flight Is Cancelled/Delayed?

The single best way to protect yourself against airline screwups is to make more than one flight booking to get where you are going. And doing this has been made easier and less costly by changes to airline policies over the past two years.

If you absolutely have to be somewhere, you may want to buy more than one ticket. This summer we’ve seen numerous airline meltdowns. The airlines blame weather, and the FAA (including air traffic control), and those are contributing factors. But fundamentally they haven’t had the staff, o sufficient staffing margins, to run their operations. Several airlines, like Delta and JetBlue, have scaled their schedules cancelling flights in advance to make things more manageable but still throwing passenger schedules into chaos.

When your flight is delayed and you’re going to misconnect, or your flight is cancelled, other flights ae often too full – your airline may not be able to re-accommodate you quickly or even for several days.

Against that backdrop one of the things I’ve advised is booking a backup itinerary.

  • Airlines have broadly eliminated change fees (except on basic economy fares and on some tickets originating outside the United States), so if you buy a ticket you aren’t going to use you can cancel it and retain full credit. That’s great for a frequent flyer on an airline they normally fly, but since these credits generally expire after a year that isn’t great for everyone or on airlines you may not fly as often. I won’t really benefit from a Delta or JetBlue credit the way I’d benefit from an American or Southwest one.

  • That makes booking a backup award itinerary more attractive. American AAdvantage eliminated cancel and redeposit fees. Southwest never had them. United still officially has these fees but hasn’t been charging them. You get your miles back and you aren’t letting the airlines hold your cash.

  • You probably need to book your backup travel on a different airline than your planned itinerary. American, for instance, has cancelled out backup reservations when both trips are on its own metal and booked too close together for you to possibly travel on both. Before the pandemic they also instituted a tool to prevent customers from having backup flights in the same itinerary unless they ae a Concierge Key or Executive Platinum member.

The idea is that you have two different bites at the apple. If your first flight goes off, great, you cancel the backup. If it doesn’t, refund the first ticket and travel on the second one. This is another reason why it’s better to travel on one way tickets now.

A month ago reader JorgeGeorge Paez commented here,

… cancellable backup flights…..” which leaves less options for others (and some airlines are cancel[l]ing proactively because, reasons) but I guess in that scenario it’s dog eat dog?

Scott Mayerowitz, Executive Editor at The Points Guy, addresses the ethics of booking backup itineraries.

In general airlines have rules against making reservations you do not intend to fly. Although you do intend to fly the backup if the airline cancels on you. You’re making a contingent reservation, which is exactly what airlines have encouraged customers to do for decades in selling much more expensive refundable fares.

Mayerowitz suggests airlines will more or less look the other way in this ‘challenging environment’ based on his conversations with half a dozen carriers. I could see if you did this at a big enough scale, at some point in the future, never actually needing those backups you could draw extra attention to yourself. And airlines mostly decide what their own rules mean, relying on a compliant DOT and court precedents making it difficult to sue.

But as a one-off or occasional tactic you just won’t have a problem. But that’s addressed just the ethics vis-a-vis airlines and not with respect to other passengers also fighting for space. It’s possible though that they are no worse off,

  • If you do not take the backup flight, the seat is still available for someone to travel on

  • You might discourage someone from booking that seat in advance (if you’re taking up cheaper inventory and the flight becomes more expensive) but that means an extra seat for re-accommodating someone, creating the slack in the system for poor operations that the airlines should be providing themselves

  • And if you do take the backup, you are freeing up a seat on your original delayed flight, and you are one less person for your original airline to have to re-accommodate meaning there’s one more seat on that airline to help out someone else that was inconvenienced on your flight.

With a fixed supply of seats, and more passengers trying to get somewhere than an airline’s failing operation supporting, one person taking a seat may mean someone else not taking it. There are tradeoffs which are largely the fault of the airline, and you cannot know who benefits or loses most of the time. You just have to do your best trying to get where you’re going for yourself and your family, and let others do the same, within the confines of a system the airlines have set up.

Meanwhile, be attuned to the needs of passengers around you. Have patience and goodwill. I’ve more than once over the years given up a seat and taken a later flight to help someone out that needed the seat more than I did.

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