What Are the Rules Around Airline Flight Changes?
Q. “What are my rights if my airline changes my departure time to one hour earlier? Can I reschedule my flight for free?”—GA
A. It’s super frustrating when an airline changes your flight time on you, but it can actually be a blessing in disguise. Most airlines allow you to change your flight for free if your schedule change is more than 60 minutes. You can typically change the time by up to a day, but you must keep the same cities/route. You can also generally cancel for free as well. So if you booked a red-eye flight because it was the cheapest thing available, you might be able to change to a more convenient time without paying extra.
Q. “After I purchase my airfare and pay for seat selection, sometimes the airline changes the aircraft model. Now instead of an aisle seat, I may be in the middle. Why don’t airlines notify you when this happens when you have pre-purchased your seat? They should at least give you an identical seat not the same row/seat number. They do notify you if there are departure or arrival time changes.” —DMB
A. Aircraft swaps often happen on the same day as the flight due to issues such as maintenance or delays, or planes being grounded (like in the 737 MAX issue.) This doesn’t really give enough time to notify travelers and have them re-pick their seats. However, aircraft swaps do happen weeks or months out as well, so it’s best to check your booking regularly or at least right before your flight so you can make sure you’re in the seat you want. Don’t forget that airline letters aren’t the same on all planes—you could be in an A, C, D, G, H,or K seat and still be in an aisle, so check SeatGuru (our sister site) before you panic.
If you’ve paid for an aisle seat and get stuck in the middle, make sure to call your airline and request a refund for your seat selection fee.
Animals on a Plane
Q. “What are my legal rights around bringing my animal on a plane?” —CS
A. The only animals that are protected under law for travel are service animals. The Department of Justice only recognizes dogs, and, in some cases, miniature horses, as service animals under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). These animals must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability, and are legally allowed to go all places that people are allowed to go—including on an airplane.
Emotional support animals are not covered under the ADA, and airlines can require specific documentation proving that the animal is trained for emotional support (it’s illegal to ask for documentation for a service dog), and require 48 hours’ advance notice to accommodate one on a flight. Note, however, that new rules for service animals are on the way from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Airlines are never legally required to accept pets on board, so check with your individual airline on their pet policy before you fly.
Flying with Marijuana
Q. “Now that marijuana is legal in many states, can I fly with it? What if I’m traveling between states where it is legal, or with a medical marijuana prescription?” —SD
A. While recreational marijuana may be legal under state law, it’s still illegal under federal law (which governs air travel), so unfortunately, you’ll need to leave your marijuana at home. However, if you have a medication that contains a small amount of THC, you can legally fly with it under a recent TSA rule change. The new rule states: “Marijuana and certain cannabis infused products, including some Cannabidiol (CBD) oil, remain illegal under federal law except for products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC on a dry weight basis or that are approved by FDA. (See the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, Pub. L. 115-334.) TSA officers are required to report any suspected violations of law to local, state or federal authorities.”
The TSA also wants you to know that its job isn’t to harsh your buzz, but to keep you safe. According to the TSA, “TSA’s screening procedures are focused on security and are designed to detect potential threats to aviation and passengers. Accordingly, TSA security officers do not search for marijuana or other illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”
Q. “Can planes fly in a thunderstorm?” –AP
A. Snow tends to get most of the press around flight delays, but thunderstorms make May, June, and July the peak time of year for delays.
Planes won’t land or take off during thunderstorms, but if you’re already airborne and bad weather strikes, don’t worry. Flights can safely fly above thunderstorms, and if that’s not possible, they will reroute to go around them.
Q. “What’s your favorite travel pillow?”—PA
A. I refuse to fly with a bulky travel pillow and so have ruled out memory foam and other non-inflatable varieties. My favorite so far is the Eagle Creek Exhale, because it has a clip that holds the front of the pillow together and prevents my head from falling through the gap.
Got a burning travel question you want to see answered in next month’s column? Do you vehemently disagree with my answers to this month’s questions? Comment below or send me an e-mail at email@example.com with the subject line: Check Your Baggage.
Editor’s Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and length.
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More from SmarterTravel:
- Do You Have to Switch Seats If Someone Asks?
- Are Airlines Tracking Your Flight Search … and Raising Prices?
- 9 DIY Ways to Upgrade Economy Class
Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline for photos from around the world.