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Airlines these days seem to tweak their schedules far more often than ever. Too often, I hear from travelers who ticketed what they planned to be a good itinerary only to find that their airline has changed their schedule. Many such schedule changes are innocuous, and you can easily accept such minor glitches as inconvenient departure or arrival times, increased travel time, additional stops, longer layovers, or uncomfortably tight connections. But other times a schedule change can throw your trip entirely out of whack: You can't make the new departure, for example, a later arrival time makes you miss an appointment or connection, the new schedule includes an unacceptable red-eye, or the trip would take far too many hours. Whatever the reason, if you really don't like a new schedule, you can sometimes do something about it.
Airlines change schedules for a variety of reasons—fleet scheduling, changed air traffic situations and such—but increasingly these days, they prune flights because of "excess capacity" on poorly performing routes. Their contracts of carriage all allow them to cancel flights, and generally promise to provide you with two options:
- An alternative schedule on their own flights, which they typically book for you automatically.
- A complete refund, even on a nonrefundable ticket.
A few lines also offer a third option: transfer to another line, usually limited to an airline with which they have a partnership or interline agreement, rarely to any non-partner line.
If you get caught, your easiest option is to accept the airline's offer unless it's really terrible, especially if you can live with the inconvenience and reschedule any meetings you might miss. In that case, the biggest problem that you'll face—a big issue with some flyers, not so much with others—is that you lose whatever seat assignments you originally had. Although your ticket entitles you to a seat, it doesn't entitle you to a specific seat. And because the airline is moving you to flights that already have bookings, your chances of ending up in middle seats and/or separated from a traveling companion are pretty high. In that case, you just have to figure "kismet" and maybe try to fix your seat assignments at departure time.
But all too often, the airline's new schedule will not work for you, for the reasons mentioned or others. In that case, my suggestion is that you go online and work out what would be acceptable to you, call the airline's reservation agent (you really can't do this online), and give the agent your preferred option. That approach works best when you confine your alternative schedule search to the original line. If you can't do that, expand your search to partner lines: you can identify them by looking at your original line's frequent flyer program pages. If that doesn't work, you can certainly try a non-partner airline, but your chances then get pretty slim.
If your original line can't or won't provide an acceptable itinerary, your only remaining option is to ask for a refund and start the booking process over again. That way, you can try for the best possible itinerary available at the time. Unfortunately, however, rebooking might require you to pay a higher fare—maybe even a much higher fare, depending on circumstances. But if that's the only way you can complete your trip, go for it.
How about that possible "blessing" in the above headline? If, for some reason, you have nonrefundable tickets for a trip you really want to cancel, a schedule change gives you the perfect opportunity to bail out without penalty or loss. One frequent traveler I know has done that twice this year already.
Although airlines try to notify you if your schedule changes, I often hear from flyers who missed their flights because they were reassigned to an earlier departure and didn't know about it. Especially if you ticket well in advance, always check with the airline to make sure it has no nasty surprises in store for you.