United schedules earlier departures

/ Source: The Associated Press

Passengers booking morning flights on United Airlines this summer may have to set their alarm clocks a bit earlier.

The nation's second-largest carrier is scheduling earlier departure times in about 20 U.S. cities starting in June, eyeing a summer air-travel crush that's expected to be worse than usual. That means those flights will leave an average 15 minutes sooner and as early as 5:40 a.m., United said Tuesday.

"We're trying to make this change to improve our schedule - to optimize our revenue, better use our aircraft and provide our customers with more connection options," spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said.

A flight currently scheduled to leave Boston for Chicago at 6 a.m., for example, will depart next month at 5:44, giving passengers a chance for at least a dozen more connections out of busy O'Hare International Airport.

Other airlines indicated no immediate plans to follow United's move, and some downplayed it.

Continental Airlines Inc. spokeswoman Julie King said the carrier has had similar departure times for years, citing a 5:30 a.m. flight from Newark, N.J., to Houston, among others. Spokesmen for both American Airlines parent AMR Corp. and Northwest Airlines Corp. said they have no plans to move up their flights.

Likewise, Delta Air Lines Inc. said it plans to keep most of its first departures around 6 a.m.

"There really has to be a balance between managing peaks travel times, creating reasonable connection opportunities and flying when customers want to fly," said Delta spokeswoman Betsy Talton. "We've found that most customers don't particularly want to fly earlier, and a 6 a.m. departure still makes it possible to catch a morning meeting or keep a business trip to just one day."

The good news for passengers in United's move, according to experts: Less traffic on the way to the airport and less chance for flight delays. The bad news, of course, should be obvious to all but those who love waking up at 3:30 a.m.

Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis-based airline expert at Web site myvacationpassport.com, said the move could benefit airlines and consumers.

"If you've got a (congested) situation like O'Hare and you feel you would experience less delays, by all means move your flights 15 or 20 minutes," he said. "Whatever it takes to get those flights out."

Robert Mann, an airline consultant based in Port Washington, N.Y., wonders whether earlier departures, while better positioned in terms of peak times, could face the risk of delays from crews that need to complete their mandated eight hours of rest after arriving late the night before.

"The only other question is passenger acceptance of it," he said. "A flight where you don't have to get up at 3 in the morning may make more sense."

Might United, a unit of UAL Corp., push flights even earlier?

"First we're going to monitor how our customers respond to this," Urbanski said. "It's something we'll continue to monitor."