You did your research and booked your flight months ago. Yet days or hours before you're set to depart, your flight changes. As airlines grapple with a surge in demand, schedule changes are increasingly common owing to summer thunderstorms, computer meltdowns, and staffing shortages. To ensure you get to your destination in a timely manner, you should be familiar with your rights as a passenger and how to handle an unexpected change.
WHAT IS A SCHEDULE CHANGE?
A schedule change is any alteration the airline makes to your initially booked flight. It may just be a few minutes difference in departure time, or it may be hours later. In extreme cases, you may lose your seat due to an equipment change (i.e., a swap in the size of the plane operating your flight). In other scenarios, the airline may add stops to your journey or change your connection airport. All these scenarios have one key thing in common. They are all changes the airline imposed on your travel plans, not changes you wanted or requested.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
When an airline changes your flight, they will likely automatically rebook you to get you to your destination. If you are satisfied with the change, you probably don't have to do anything. If unsatisfied, though, a couple of options are available to you.
GETTING A REFUND
If the schedule change causes you to no longer want to take the flight, you are entitled to a cash refund. The United States Department of Transportation states that "a passenger is entitled to a refund if the airline made a significant schedule change...and the passenger chooses not to travel." This includes refunds of optional services fees, including "baggage fees, seat upgrades, or in-flight Wi-Fi."
WHAT IS A “SIGNIFICANT” SCHEDULE CHANGE?
Each airline defines “significant” differently. American Airlines, for example, defines failing to operate on schedule as "a delay to your departure time of over 4 hours." Delta, however, only requires a delay of 2 hours.
HOW TO GET YOUR MONEY
If you decide not to travel, you will have to cancel your trip and request your refund online or call the airline. Before doing so, make sure you have read the airline's policies to be sure the schedule change you experienced is "significant." Read the fine print closely as you cancel as you may be first offered a travel credit instead.
YOU CAN ALWAYS REBOOK
You also have the option to request a routing different from the one the airline automatically rebooked you on. If you research flights, you may find one that departs earlier but connects to another airport. Or you may find a route that adds a connection but gets you to your destination at the same time as your original flight.
If you find an alternative itinerary and you're already at the airport, visit a customer service desk for assistance or reach out to the airline on social media. If you have a membership, go to an airline lounge where the line may be shorter.
USING A TRAVEL ADVISOR
If all that research and the reading of conditions of carriage documents sounds too stressful, consider relying on a travel agent. If you book with a travel agent, if your trip changes, you will have a real person you can quickly call for help.
Travel advisors can help you before, during, and after a trip. Advisors are known for their personalized service, knowledge, and expertise. Your advisor can walk you through flight alternatives that you may not have considered and will be aware of your airline's policies. Travel advisors are an excellent way to ensure your vacation stays relaxing and that you get there on time.