Question: I paid extra for a direct flight to my destination well in advance of my vacation. I just received an email from my airline saying that the flight has been changed to one with a stopover. Can the airline do that? What kind of compensation can I expect, if any?
Answer: You don’t have any good options, unfortunately. And you’re not really entitled to any kind of compensation, at least according to the airlines contract of carriage — the legal agreement between you and the airline.
In order to figure out what your rights are, you can’t really refer to the fare rules, or the fine print at the bottom of your itinerary. Instead, you must consult the actual contract which describes what the airline must do when your schedule changes.
Some contracts stipulate that the change must be “significant” which can mean your flight is rerouted through a different city or you’re delayed by more than three hours. So pay attention to the fine print before you invoke your agreement.
If the contract applies to your situation, then you are allowed to ask your airline for either a full refund or to be rebooked on a flight of its choosing.
And here is where things get interesting.
If you take the full refund, and you’re only a few days away from your flight, then buying a more convenient ticket on another carrier would be impossibly expensive. As you probably know, airfares rise as the date of departure gets closer. They do this in order to take advantage of travelers who must go somewhere at the last minute, like business travelers or people on their way to a short-notice, must-attend family event, like a birth or funeral.
I’ve always favored a rule that says if an airline refunds the ticket due to a cancelled flight, it must refund it at the going rate. So, for example, if you purchase a ticket for $200 and at the time of the schedule change, the same ticket would cost $400, then the airline must refund you $400, so that you can afford to purchase a ticket on a comparable flight for that same day.
In any other business, that kind of rule would be completely unnecessary, since prices don’t change as much. For those companies there are rules against raising prices when people most need the products, such as after a hurricane or during if there’s a shortage of supplies or staples like gasoline or water. There’s a name for that kind of anti-consumer price behavior: gouging.
For now, your best bet is to phone the airline and ask if there are any other flights available that you could be rebooked on. Often, an automatic rebooking will take the available seat inventory into account, rather than overall convenience. A human airline employee can override the system, ensuring that you are booked on a similar flight, and sometimes – I’ve seen this more than once — even the same flight.
That’s right, sometimes things get screwed up, and there’s an equipment change, and you end up on a different flight, when the one that you originally booked is actually still available.
One other thing is worth mentioning. Airlines will schedule their flights almost a full year in advance, but they don’t expect to actually keep those schedules. Most major airlines will revise their schedules quarterly, so you should expect some changes.
Fate does not reward those who plan ahead. If you’re booking your spring break vacation now, I can practically guarantee that there will be some kind of change to your itinerary.
Some travel hackers will take advantage of the schedule changes, but for us ordinary mortals, they are more of an inconvenience. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect an airline — or any travel company, for that matter — to keep the schedule that it publishes.
But maybe I’m being naïve. If I am, I’m probably in good company.