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Cancelled Flight, Lousy Alternative: What Can I Do?

When airlines cancel or reschedule flights, they normally rebook travelers on “alternate” flights. Those alternate flights are sometimes a reasonable option and acceptable to the travelers involved, but they sometimes are not. Here’s a case in point—although our response specifically references our reader’s experience, the answers apply to similar situations on any airline:

“I booked four round-trip Los Angeles-Saigon tickets on Northwest for a trip starting early in February. Today I got an email from Delta saying that it would now be operating the flight, and that it had changed my departure date to the following day. I also lost our original seat assignments. Delta no longer operates on my original date, and the replacement flight—a day later—makes two stops through Atlanta and takes several additional hours.

Doesn’t Delta have to put me on a different airline if it can’t keep my original schedule? I spent half an hour on the phone with Delta, but nobody there could give me an answer.”

The short answer is that Delta can transfer you to another line, but it doesn’t have to transfer you. No government rules or regulations cover this situation: Your only “rights,” limited as they may be, are in the airline’s contract of carriage, which is your actual contract with an airline. In Delta’s case, the remedy for the problem you describe isn’t absolute, and the contract leaves decisions up to Delta, not to you. Here are my suggestions about your “rights” and your realistic options when coping with a cancellation or substantial schedule change.

First, keep this in mind: Delta won’t reinstate your original flight for you. No matter what, you’ll have to accept something less than what you really wanted.

The Governing Fine Print

Delta’s governing language (“Rule 80,” from its international contract of carriage) covers schedule schedules thusly:

When a passenger will be delayed because of a change in its schedule, carrier will arrange to:

a) Transport the passenger over its’ own lines to the destination, next stopover point or transfer point shown on its portion of the ticket at no additional cost to the passenger.

b) Endorse the unused ticket for the purpose of rerouting over another carrier.

Note that the contract gives Delta, not you, the choice of rebooking or transferring, and that it says nothing about whether the alternative schedule on Delta is acceptable to you or not. Thus, the issue is open for negotiation: You can ask for transfer but can’t demand it as long as Delta has offered an online option, even if it might be an inferior itinerary. In practical terms, you’re left with four alternatives.

1. Accept the Change

You can decide to accept the alternate flight and seats Delta proposed as your “least worst” choice. Given that the replacement flight will be significantly longer, you might ask to be upgraded on the longest segment, access to the Crown Room, or some other perk.

2. Find a Better Flight on Delta

Sometimes, your original line—Delta, in this case—could provide a better alternative than the one it originally proposed. Even though you can’t accept a flight a day later, for example, you might prefer a nonstop flight a day earlier rather than a multi-stop itinerary on your original date. So check out other options that Delta still operates, and if you find something better, ask to be transferred to that option rather than the one Delta gave you.

3. Ask for a Transfer to Another Airline

If you can’t find a satisfactory alternative on Delta, check the schedules to see which airline or airlines—if any—operate itineraries that suit you better than the rebooking Delta gave you. Ask Delta to transfer you to that itinerary, and support your request by citing the relevant paragraphs in Delta’s contract of carriage. Although Delta isn’t required to make the change, it clearly has that authority.

4. Get a Refund and Rebook

If Delta won’t budge on a transfer, consider asking for a refund from Delta and buying completely new tickets on the other airline. Obviously, this makes sense only if you can still buy new tickets for about the same price as your original tickets—a question you need to answer before you initiate a refund request. In this case, you’ll almost surely have to replace your entire round-trip itineraries, not just the “going” portions.

Forget Seat Assignments

Unfortunately, in this sort of situation, seat assignments are a lost cause. Airlines never contractually promise to honor seat assignments and they’re free to change them without any recourse on your part. Most of the time, an airline will try to keep families or groups together, but there are no promises.

Rule 240 Disappearing Fast

Our reader’s question about transferring to another airline harks back to the longstanding belief that airlines are required to make such transfers. That was true a long time ago: Before deregulation, the U.S. government required airlines to file uniform tariffs, and Rule 240 paragraphs in these tariffs specified the requirement to transfer travelers on delayed or cancelled flights to other lines if those other lines could get the travelers to their final destinations more quickly. (This never was a true government “rule,” but it was part of required tariff filings.)

As I’ve noted, however, airlines are no longer required to file such tariffs—just contracts of carriage. Now, although all lines treat the subject of cancellations and schedule changes in their contracts, they are free to set their individual standards. Only a few actually commit to transfers, and in limited circumstances; most simply promise to get you on their own next flight. Ah, progress.

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