Anyone who flies regularly dreads that email from the airlines: The flight you booked isn’t the one you’ll be taking.
Dynie Sanderson received one from Air Canada last week. His October flight from London to Nairobi via Cairo on a partner airline was changed to include a second layover. The five-hour layover in Ethiopia would make you miss the start of a safari.
“The email didn’t say, ‘Do you want to accept this or not?’” says Ms. Sanderson, a real estate agent and content creator from Napa, California.
Airlines aren’t quick to broadcast this, but that flight you’ve been automatically rebooked on isn’t always the only option, especially for substantial itinerary changes. Travelers generally have three options, depending on the magnitude of the change. They can transfer to a different flight without paying extra. They can request a refund, even on a non-refundable ticket. Or they can keep the rebooked flight.
You should understand your rights and put pressure on the airline as soon as you receive notice of a schedule change if the change doesn’t work for you. The tricky part is finding your airline’s policy on schedule changes, which are different from last-minute flight cancellations and delays.
Most major airlines publish their flight schedules nearly a year in advance and adjust them regularly to match demand, aircraft and labor availability, and other factors. Airlines rewrote their schedules constantly in 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic. Changes are happening less frequently now, with volume slowing after the Omicron wave in early 2022, says Andrew Didora, an airline analyst at Bank of America. Airlines still renew their schedules weekly.
Travelers who book flights well in advance still receive flight change notifications. Some are minor: a barrage of emails saying the output has changed in four minutes. Others are unsustainable.
There isn’t a DOT customer service panel that explains each airline’s policy on schedule changes, like there is for nearby flight cancellations and delays. The agency’s only stated policy on schedule changes is that clients should receive a refund in the event of a “significant” change.
What are your rights?
The DOT proposed rules last year that would define a significant schedule change, but for now the airlines decide and policies vary widely.
American Airlines is the most stingy, and refunds are only given if a schedule changes by more than four hours. Alaska Airlines allows refunds for schedule changes of more than one hour. Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines allow refunds for changes of more than two hours; Frontier Airlines, three hours.
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The fine print is included in airlines’ dense contracts of carriage, with links typically buried at the bottom of their websites. Even then it is not always clear. Southwest Airlines legalese says travelers affected by a “significant” schedule change can rebook on another available flight or request a refund, but it doesn’t define the term by hours. A spokesperson told me that passengers are eligible regardless of the extent of the flight change.
On some airline websites, including United Airlines and JetBlue Airways, you can search for “schedule change” and an easy-to-understand policy summary appears. United gets right to the point: “If your flight schedule changes by more than 30 minutes, you can choose a different flight for free, as long as it’s on United or United Express to and from the same place, and within 24 hours of your original flight.
United is less clear on refund eligibility, also citing a “significant” change. A spokeswoman defines that as changes of two more hours to the arrival or departure time or the addition of a stop.
JetBlue offers what I consider to be the clearest guidelines. The airline sets its options based on the extent of the schedule change, from 60 minutes to 120 minutes or more, or the addition of a stop en route. If your flight change takes less than 60 minutes, you won’t have to rebook with JetBlue. Beyond that, free flight changes and refunds are available with different terms.
no longer without stopping
Amanda Adams, a 36-year-old product manager from Durham, NC, bought tickets at Frontier in January for a May wedding in Philadelphia. A month later, Frontier changed the return flight on the Sunday after the wedding from a 12:45 p.m. nonstop flight to a 6:00 a.m. flight with a long layover in Atlanta.
“We said, ‘No, absolutely not,’” she says.
Ms. Adams says she couldn’t find better options at Frontier. One-way tickets home cost three times as much on other airlines. She and her husband requested a refund from Frontier and this week booked train tickets to Philadelphia from Richmond, Virginia.
Ms. Sanderson, the content creator, has lost count of how many time change notices she has received. In the Air Canada case, she tried to cancel the new itinerary the airline emailed her, but she kept getting alerts about a $300 cancellation fee if she did it online. She did get a refund for the miles she used for the flights to Kenya, but only after several hours on the phone. She had to buy expensive one-way tickets on another airline for the safari.
(Frontier and Air Canada did not respond to requests for comment about specific passengers unhappy with the schedule changes.)
Sometimes only the worst option works. Tammy Collins and her husband booked a 72-hour trip to Las Vegas from Cleveland last fall. They were supposed to leave in the morning, but a few weeks before the flight, Frontier moved the departure to later that day, she says. There were no other options on Frontier and other airlines were too expensive, so Ms. Collins stuck with the new itinerary.
“We pretty much wasted the whole day,” she says.
Stay on top of changes in airline schedules
- Please make sure your email address is on your reservation. This is how airlines and online travel agencies communicate flight changes.
- Check your reservation regularly if you book tickets well in advance in case you haven’t received an email. Schedule changes may also affect seat assignments.
- Quickly contact the airline or travel agency after learning of a time change, but only after researching the alternatives to see what works best. Some airlines will work with you regardless of their official policies on flight changes and refunds.
Email Dawn Gilbertson at [email protected]
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