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Can an Airline Cancel My Flight Without Telling Me?

Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Dear Carl,

I purchased a flight in December 2008 for travel in November 2009, with Delta Airlines.

In July 2009, I reviewed my reservations, to ensure that there were no major changes. (I like to do this periodically to avoid any nasty surprises).

My account showed my original flight information, and in small print beside each flight it indicated to call Delta Airlines. I called the airline and was informed that Delta had cancelled the route and they needed to re-book us on new flights.

I proceeded to do this for all members of my party and after two days of back and forth with Delta, we finally had some decent flights rebooked.

A month later (about two weeks ago) I received a call from Delta advising me of a flight change, the change was for an earlier departure of 10 min … no big deal. I had a doubt about the other tickets and asked the agent to review these to make sure we were on the same flights. Good thing, Delta had every member of my family traveling on different planes! (Editor’s note: In subsequent emails, Dominique said she specifically requested that her party be kept together on one plane)

After a great deal of back and forth, I finally told them to refund the tickets and proceeded to book much better flights on KLM. (Ed. note: At this point, Dominique’s itinerary had grown from having one connection to four)

I have two questions: Since Delta cancelled the flight, what is their legal obligation in informing passengers about the cancelled routes. (Delta told me they can cancel routes up to 60 days in advance, and are only required to advise passengers 60 days prior to leaving if the route has been cancelled.)

The second question is: The flights rebooked in July were not cancelled or altered. Why were we bumped from them without our consent?




First of all, it’s a good thing to occasionally check on your reservation, as you learned. Especially in this era of capacity reductions and ever-changing flight routes, it’s wise to keep an eye on your itinerary and catch any changes as early as possible.

However, aside from creating a giant headache for you, Delta does not seem to have done anything wrong in the legal sense of the word. And by “legal,” of course, I mean contractual. Consumers have few legal rights when it comes to air travel—your rights and protections exist by and large within the context of your contract with the airline.

So, as defined by Delta’s contract of carriage, the airline acted properly. Rule 80(C) covers changes in schedule, and requires Delta to transport you on its own alternate flights, endorse your ticket for travel on another carrier, or provide a refund if it cancels its own flight for reasons under its control. There is no written provision I could find stating how far in advance Delta must tell passengers of a schedule change. A Delta rep told me the airline contacts affected passengers based on “immediate impact,” meaning it starts with people who are traveling soon. Since you were dealing with Delta in July for travel in November, it’s reasonable to assume Delta simply hadn’t gotten to you yet.

As to why this whole situation came up in the first place, Delta also told me that service to Malaga from JFK (Dominique’s route included a connection there) was changed to seasonal—summer only—which obviously created problems for your trip, both the initial itinerary and subsequent rebookings, in November.

Once again, the real takeaway here is that these types of things happen, and travelers should check in on their itineraries often, as Dominique did. One of the best illustrations of just how volatile the airline industry has become is USA Today’s schedule change map, which gives a state-by-state breakdown of flight cuts. We’re talking about a lot of cancelled flights and rebooked itineraries, so keep an eye on yours.

Readers, I’d love to hear what you have to say about Dominique’s experience. Have you been down this road before? Have I missed anything between the fine print? Leave a comment below, and don’t forget to submit questions of your own!

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