Anyone who flies regularly dreads that email from airlines: The flight you have booked is not the one you are going to take.
Dynie Sanderson received one from Air Canada last week. A second stop has been added to their October flight from London to Nairobi via Cairo on a partner airline. Due to the five-hour stay in Ethiopia, she would miss the start of a safari.
“The email didn’t say, ‘Do you want to accept this or not?'” says Ms. Sanderson, a realtor and content creator based out of Napa, California.
Airlines aren’t quick to spread the word, but that flight they’ve automatically rebooked you on isn’t always the only option — especially with major itinerary changes. Travelers typically have three options, depending on the extent of the change. You can transfer to another flight at no extra charge. You can request a refund, even for a non-refundable ticket. Or they stay with the rebooked flight.
You should know your rights and contact the airline as soon as you learn about a flight schedule change if the change doesn’t work for you. The tricky part is finding your airline’s schedule change policies, which differ from flight cancellations and last-minute delays.
Most major airlines release their flight schedules almost a year in advance, regularly adjusting them based on demand, aircraft and labor availability, and other factors. Airlines have been constantly rewriting their flight schedules during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Changes are less frequent now as volume slows after the Omicron wave in early 2022, says Bank of America airline analyst Andrew Didora. Airlines are still revising their flight schedules on a weekly basis.
Travelers who book flights well in advance are still often notified of flight changes. Some are insignificant – a spate of emails saying the departure has changed by four minutes. Others are untenable.
There is no transportation department customer service dashboard detailing each airline’s policy on flight schedule changes, as is the case with last-minute flight cancellations and delays. The agency’s only stated policy on schedule changes is that customers are entitled to a refund in the event of a “significant” change.
What rights do you have?
The DOT proposed rules last year that would define a significant schedule change, but for now, airlines decide and policies vary widely.
American Airlines is the most stingy, only giving refunds when a flight schedule changes by more than four hours. Alaska Airlines allows refunds for schedule changes longer than one hour. Delta Air Lines and Spirit Airlines allow refunds for changes longer than two hours; Frontier Airlines, three hours.
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The fine print is in the airlines’ dense contracts of carriage, with links usually buried at the bottom of their websites. Even then it is not always clear. Southwest Airlines legal language says travelers affected by a “significant” schedule change can transfer to another available flight or request a refund, but they don’t define the term by hours. A spokesman told me passengers are eligible regardless of the size of the flight change.
On some airline websites, including those of United Airlines and JetBlue Airways, you can search for “schedule change” for an easy-to-understand summary of the policy. United puts it succinctly: “If your flight schedule changes by more than 30 minutes, you can select another flight free of charge, as long as it is on United or United Express to and from the same location and within 24 hours of your original flight. “
United is less clear on reimbursement eligibility and also cites a “significant” change. A spokeswoman defines this as changing the arrival or departure time by two hours or adding a stopover.
JetBlue offers what I believe to be the clearest guidelines. The airline will determine your options based on the magnitude of the schedule change from 60 minutes to over 120 minutes or adding a stopover to the route. If the flight change is less than 60 minutes, you will be stuck with JetBlue rebooking. In addition, free flight changes and refunds are available with different conditions.
Not non-stop anymore
Amanda Adams, a 36-year-old product manager from Durham, NC, bought tickets to a May wedding in Philadelphia from Frontier in January. A month later, Frontier changed the return flight on the Sunday after the wedding from a non-stop 12:45 p.m. flight to a 6 a.m. flight with a long layover in Atlanta.
“We were just like, ‘No, absolutely not,'” she says.
Ms. Adams says she hasn’t found any better options on Frontier. One-way tickets home cost three times as much on other airlines. Demanding a refund from Frontier, she and her husband booked train tickets from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia this week.
Ms. Sanderson, the content creator, lost track of how many schedule change notifications she received. In Air Canada’s case, she attempted to cancel the new itinerary the airline emailed her, but kept getting notifications of a $300 cancellation fee if she did so online. She got back the miles she had used on the flights to Kenya, but only after several hours on the phone. She had to buy expensive one-way safari tickets from another airline.
(Frontier and Air Canada did not respond to requests for comment about specific passengers who were unhappy with schedule changes.)
Sometimes only the worst option works. Tammy Collins and her husband booked a 72-hour trip from Cleveland to Las Vegas last fall. They were supposed to be leaving early tomorrow morning, but a few weeks before the flight, Frontier delayed departure to later in the 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 lost the whole day,” she says.
Stay up to date on flight schedule changes
- 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 missed an email. Flight schedule changes may also affect seat assignments.
- Contact the airline or travel agent quickly after learning about a change of plan—but only after you’ve researched the alternatives to see what works best. Some airlines will work with you regardless of their official flight change and refund policies.
Write to Dawn Gilbertson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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