What should you do when you get an email informing you that the airline you booked your vacation on has unilaterally decided that you are flying two hours earlier than expected? In many cases, an airline’s schedule change can be an opportunity to secure a seat on a flight that works better for you, for free. Or it can give you a get-out-of-jail-free card on a flight you don’t want to take.
Here’s what you need to know about airline schedule changes.
Why do airlines change schedules?
Most airlines publish their flight schedules a year or so in advance. But these schedules could be seen as placeholders, meant to allow the airline to start selling ticket. In years past, airlines published timetables a year in advance and pretty much stuck with their published schedules. Today, few airlines publish printed timetables. Nowadays, airlines are much more likely to adjust their schedules to meet market demand.
As airlines sell tickets and monitor demand, they will cancel flights, add flights to routes, and move planes around in their system in an effort to make more profit. Maybe a route is selling more seats than expected. An airline can add a plane or swap an aircraft to get more seats on that route. Maybe a route has less demand and it makes sense to cut a flight. Or perhaps there’s an aircraft delivery delay and an airline won’t have as many planes as it thought it would have later this year. Whatever the reason, when an airline moves something around that touches your flight booking, your schedule will change.
How do you learn of a schedule change?
In most cases, if an airline has an email address attached to your reservation, you’ll get an email notifying you of a schedule change.
Depending on the airline, the email might show you what changed. Or it might simply tell you your new flight.
What does the airline have to give you?
When the airline changes your schedule, what does it have to give you? In the United States? Not much. According to the DOT, you are entitled to a refund if your schedule is changed significantly or if your flight experiences a significant delay. The DOT doesn’t define what a significant delay is.
Personally, I consider any schedule change of more than an hour or that causes me to miss plans to be significant. Most airlines seem to agree with this, but what exactly your airline considers a significant delay will be a matter of the policy of the airline you’re flying with.
In the case of a significant delay, the only thing you are entitled to is a refund. But often the airlines will be more accommodating and offer you options. After all, they would much rather keep your money and have you fly with them.
What do airlines offer in practice?
In practice with most airlines, a schedule change will allow you additional flexibility. Many airlines will let you make a one-time rebooking for free. This one-time rebooking usually allows you to change to any flight with seats in your cabin of service on the same day, for free. Even if prices have gone up or if prices were higher for other flight when you originally booked them.
On the schedule change above, Delta allowed me to select any flight with Main Cabin seats available up to two days before or after my originally scheduled flight. Prices on some flights had dropped since I originally booked my flight. So, if I selected a cheaper flight, Delta would redeposit the miles I used to pay for the flight to my account.
Canceling is an option
One often forgotten about option for dealing with schedule changes is canceling and rebooking with another airline. If a low-cost carrier with a limited schedule changes your schedule, this might be your only viable option. But even if you’re flying with a legacy carrier, check prices on alternate flights to see if you can score a better deal. If you find a better deal or a better schedule, consider canceling your flight and booking with the other airline.
Change or wait?
In the case of a schedule change, you’ll only get to change your plans once for free. If your travel plans are fixed and require you to be on a certain flight, the best thing to do is change your flight immediately. Pick the flight that works best for you and lock in your schedule.
But you can also wait and cash your free schedule change at a later date. If an airline has changed your flight schedule, it will usually allow you a free change until the day of departure. The risk with waiting is that flights may close up. If an airline sells out a flight, it is unlikely that they will be willing to oversell that flight to accommodate a free schedule change.
Frequently asked questions
Most airlines will let you rebook online if they change your schedule. And for most people, this is the least-hassle way to get the best schedule that works for you.
Typically, airlines won’t rebook you on another carrier if your schedule changes in advance of the day of departure. Some airlines will rebook you on another carrier if your flight is significantly delayed on your day of travel.
In most cases, an airline will let you book any flight on the same day, including connecting or direct flights, if your flight schedule changes.
In many cases, an airline will allow you to fly out of another airport if your flight has changed. This can be especially useful if you’re planning on driving to a major airport, and a schedule change lets you change your flight to an airport closer to home. It can also be useful if you live in a large city like Chicago or New York that offers multiple airports.
In most cases, an airline will not give you compensation for a schedule change that occurs before the day of your flight.