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Unraveling Southwest's Mysterious Scheduling Process

by , SmarterTravel Staff
(Photo: Southwest)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 27, 2008. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, low-cost airline, Molly Feltner, Southwest.

When does Southwest open up new fares for booking? Most airlines allow you to book tickets 330 days ahead of time, but Southwest generally only allows bookings between 90 and 180 days in advance. Without an exact formula for releasing new fare schedules, what's an early planner to do?

You can get a good idea of the schedule by going to Southwest's Travel Tools page. A note there lists the airline's best guess for the date it will release new schedules and how far out those new schedules go. (August 27, 2008, Editor's Note: Southwest recently updated its website and failed to list the new date on which it plans to release its next batch of flights. SmarterTravel.com is investigating the situation.)

In the Nuts about Southwest blog, Bill Owen, Southwest's lead schedule planner, offers some more insight into the airline's process on release dates: " … We publish our schedule and allow bookings only up to about 180 days in advance … After we publish, we let the clock tick down " … until we have about 120 days worth of inventory left to sell, at which point we publish another block of schedules and push the inventory back up to about 180 days. On rare occasions … the inventory can drop as low as 90 days, and on even rarer occasions we'll have more than 180 days available." Owen also noted that new schedules are generally released at 10 a.m. CT on Thursdays.

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Why all the fuzzy math? Southwest claims it wants to firm up its schedules as much as possible before releasing them to the public. That way it can minimize having to change or cancel confirmed reservations due to schedule adjustments While initially Southwest's strange scheduling methods seem painful, it might help avoid hassles later on, especially in today's volatile market. Many passengers who booked tickets far in advance are finding their final itinerary changed or completely canceled due to late-breaking schedule cutbacks.

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