Airline schedule changes are inevitable, and the earlier you book your trip, the more likely you are to encounter one. Schedule changes can be devastating when your perfect non-stop flight is canceled, but schedule changes can also be a tremendous blessing, whether you are using miles or just buying your ticket. What are your rights when an airline involuntarily changes your schedule?
First we will examine the contract of carriage provisions for the big three legacy carriers when you run into a schedule change (bolding mine), but you can jump down to read how you can talk your way out of even the smallest changes.
Your Rights When American Airlines Changes Your Schedule
AA’s contract of carriage contains the following clause:
IN THE EVENT, AFTER TICKET ISSUANCE, SCHEDULE
CHANGES ARE MADE BY AA THAT:
(I) AFFECT A PASSENGER’S DEPARTURE AND/OR
ARRIVAL BY 2 OR MORE HOURS;
(II) RESULT IN THE ADDITION OF AN INTERMEDIATE
STOP ON THE PASSENGER’S ITINERARY;
(III) RESULT IN A SUBSTITUTION OF EQUIPMENT NOT
ACCEPTABLE TO THE PASSENGER; OR
(IV) IF A CANCELLATION OR A CHANGE IN EITHER AIR
OR TOUR ITINERARY IS INITIATED EITHER BY AA
OR IT’S TOUR OPERATORS WHICH IS UNACCEPTABLE
TO THE PASSENGER, THE PASSENGER WILL HAVE THE
OPTION OF CANCELLING WITHOUT PENALTY, OR
REROUTING ON DIFFERENT FLIGHTS TO/FROM THE
SAME OR DIFFERENT DESTINATION. HOWEVER, THE
PASSENGER MUST PAY ANY ADDITIONAL AMOUNTS
RESULTING FROM THE REROUTING.
In many ways, AA is the most generous of the three biggest U.S. legacy carriers. Requiring a two-hour schedule change is a bit much, but allowing a free refund if a schedule change results in an additional stop or change in aircraft equipment is generous. Further, §IV appears to be a catch-all provision that allows a passenger to cancel for any reason at all if a schedule change of any variety occurs, as long as it is “unacceptable”. That’s where your creativity, discussed below, can come in handy.
The not-so-cool thing about AA’s schedule change rules is that if you don’t want to cancel your ticket but instead want to modify the routing, AA reserves the right to charge you the difference in fare and may even charge you the change fee. In my experience, agents have been pretty reasonable about schedule changes and are often willing to help you out with your preferred routing at no cost, but AA does not guarantee this.
Your Rights When Delta Air Lines Changes Your Schedule
Delta’s contract of carriage (.pdf) contains the following clause:
In the event of flight cancellation, diversion, delays of greater than 90 minutes, or delays that will cause a passenger to miss connections, Delta will (at passenger’s request) cancel the remaining ticket and refund the unused portion of the ticket and unused ancillary fees in the original form of payment in accordance with Rule 260 of these conditions of carriage. If the passenger does not request a refund and cancellation of the ticket, Delta will transport the passenger to the destination on Delta’s next flight on which seats are available in the class of service originally purchased. At Delta’s sole discretion and if acceptable to the passenger, Delta may arrange for the passenger to travel on another carrier or via ground transportation. If acceptable to the passenger, Delta will provide transportation in a lower class of service, in which case the passenger may be entitled to a partial refund. If space on the next available flight is available only in a higher class of service than purchased, Delta will transport the passenger on the flight, although Delta reserves the right to upgrade other passengers on the flight according to its upgrade priority policy to make space in the class
Delta’s rules are more straightfoward and promise to refund you the price of your ticket plus any extras (like for Economy Comfort or for baggage fees) if you do not accept the schedule change. Delta may offer to place you on another carrier, but reserves the right to say no.
Delta says that it will rebook you in business class if you booked into economy class and only business is available, but it reserves the right to take back your premium cabin seat and move you back to economy class.
Your Rights When United Airlines Changes Your Schedule
United’s contract of carriage (.pdf) contains the following clause:
When a Passenger’s Ticketed flight is affected because of a Change in Schedule, UA will, at its election, arrange one of the following:
1. Transport the Passenger on its own flights, subject to availability, to the Destination, next Stopover point, or transfer point shown on its portion of the Ticket, without Stopover in the same class of service, at no additional cost to the Passenger;
2. At UA’s discretion, reroute Passengers over the lines of one or more carriers in an equivalent class of service when a Change in Schedule results in the cancellation of all UA service between two cities;
3. Advise the Passenger that the value of his or her Ticket may be applied toward future travel on United within one year from the date of issue without a change or reissue fee; or
4. If the Passenger is not transported as provided in C) 1) or 2) above and does not choose to apply the value of his or her Ticket toward future travel as provided in C) 3) above, the Passenger will be eligible for a refund upon request.
United will transport you on its own metal or, if you can convince UA, on another carrier in the class you originally booked. The language is grey if you are confirmed in business class on an upgrade and your flight is cancelled — but experience tells me you will likely wind up in economy class.
Should you not like the change in schedule, by default United will offer you a voucher for future travel equivalent to your ticket price, but you can opt for a full refund instead.
Those Are the Rules, But Are Those the Practices?
Great, now we know the rules, but do airlines follow them? Who do we complain to if they do not? Unlike tarmac delays and post-purchase price increases, the federal government does not directly regulate schedule changes. That leaves you at the mercy of the airlines, but it does not mean they can act without regard to their contracts of carriage.
Practically, you will have no trouble moving cancelling or changing your ticket without fee if the schedule change results in a misconnect or a change of over 90-120 minutes in departure time. Even an hour change is usually enough to warrant a refund or fee-free change. For more minor schedule changes, you have to be creative.
Talk Your Way Out of Even the Smallest Airline Schedule Change
But what about a small schedule change, like a 10-minute change?
You may still be able to talk your way out of even a minor change if you articulate a story that is credible. Let me tell you what I did for my wife earlier this spring.
She was traveling from Moscow to LA via New York on Delta and there was a schedule change resulting in a departure from Moscow 10 minutes later than originally scheduled. How could I turn this lemon into lemonade and book her out of Germany instead? (We had originally planned to visit Russia, but the Russian consulate in Frankfurt was absolutely unreasonable in adding additional requirements to the visa application process each time we attempted to secure one).
What I did was book her on an Air Baltic flight from Riga to Moscow that arrived 24 hours and 5 minutes prior to her scheduled Delta departure. I then called Delta, cited Russia’s immigration rules only allowing transits of 24 hours or less without visa, then said that with the schedule change, my wife’s transit in Russia would now be 24 hours and 05 minutes rather than 23 hours and 55 minutes. Put another way, the schedule change turned what would have been a visa-free connection into a connection requiring a visa.
I proposed leaving out of Frankfurt instead and after consulting with her supervisor, the agent agreed to waive the change fee, charging me only the difference in fare (about $200 — the change fee alone was $400).
I then cancelled the Air Baltic ticket.
Usually you don’t even have to go that far. A friend booked an award ticket from Europe back to New York a day after he actually wanted to come home because there was no space on his preferred travel date. A small schedule change occurred which led to an arrival about 20 minutes later into NYC. Space also opened the day before, his preferred travel date.
I called up the airline and gave them a sob story about being late to an important event that night and requesting to come home early, suggesting the award space the day before that had just opened. The change was made without hassle (or fee). Heck, because of the weakness of the Euro vs. Dollar, he got back $80 in taxes…
Which Carriers are More Lenient?
Are some carriers more lenient than others? Yes. I find United is absolutely wonderful when it comes to schedule changes, generously offering free changes or cancellations for even small changes. Delta is hit-or-miss, though generally also willing to work with you (like in my anecdote above). American is the stingiest — I have had a lot of bad luck with them. Once a non-stop from LA to Palm Beach was eliminated and a client was rebooked through Dallas, something he did not want. I called AA to propose flying into Miami instead, to preserve the non-stop routing, and was shot down. I called several times and was denied each call, ultimately having to cancel the ticket.
On another occasion, a friend who was a professor in Philadelphia had a 65-minute schedule change which would have resulted in him having to end class early or cancel it. AA refused to help, saying the change had to be at least two hours.
Conclusion: Find a Nice Agent
The truth is you just need to find a nice agent — that is going to be key. Reservation agents at the three legacies are given more discretion than you might assume and being nice, having a new proposed routing, or at least pitching a believable story is key to dealing with airline schedule changes in an advantageous way.