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When your airline switches your trip

In these days of downsizing, there’s some chance that an itinerary you reserved a month or two ago will no longer operate by the day your flight is due to depart. Sure, the airline will likely “protect” your reservation by rebooking you, but maybe on a much less attractive itinerary.

I heard recently from a reader, for example, whose airline cancelled her reservation because it downsized the plane on her original flight. The airline rebooked her, but its substitute itinerary got her to Hawaii a full day late. Do you have any “rights” in this sort of situation? Sure—but they may not do you much good.

The big switcheroo

The “legacy” airlines—American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways—are all cutting back on domestic flights, at least to a degree. For the most part, they still fly the same routes, but the pattern of service can be very different:

  • Flights that were on wide-body planes a few years ago are now, at best, on single-aisle planes.
  • Lots of flights that were formerly flown on mainline jets are being downgraded to regional jets or even turboprops.
  • Either way, you may find fewer flight choices than you once had available to you.
  • In the worst-case scenario, your airline might cease service entirely to your origin or destination airport.

The most troublesome cases, of course, are those that result in significant changes to your itinerary. Even when the result isn’t totally bad, a new schedule may well involve longer flight times, longer waits, and possibly extra connections. At a minimum, you face a less comfortable trip than you might have expected, since the smaller planes are usually less comfortable than the bigger ones they’re replacing. At worst, you face a major disruption of your planned trip.

Also, when your airline has to find a new flight, you lose your original seat assignment. And in the last-minute scramble for a seat on a new flight, chances are pretty high you’ll wind up in a middle.

What you can and can’t do

In general, each airline’s contract of carriage governs its responsibilities to you, as a traveler, but most of the ones I examined aren’t specific about the sorts of problems we’re examining. As a practical matter, your rights—and, more importantly, your options—depend on the nature of the change and on the policies of your individual airline:

  • In the unlikely event an airline stops flying to/from an airport entirely, the most specific reference I found about your rights was on Continental. If it stops flying on a route where you have a ticket, Continental says it will either “reroute” you on another line, at no extra cost, or provide a refund, regardless of any refund restrictions on your original ticket. No other line is equally specific, but even in the absence of specific contractual language, those would seem to be the logical options.
  • The much more likely case is a schedule or aircraft change where your airline rebooks you on its own flights. If you don’t like a revised itinerary, your first call should be to your airline or travel agent to see if that line can offer an alternative schedule that is acceptable to you.
  • If your first airline is able to accommodate you on one of its flights, but the alternative it offers you is unacceptable, the contracts of carriage are not at all specific about your legal rights. You can ask to be rerouted on another line, but I see no language promising that sort of accommodation. You can also ask for a refund, but, again, the fine print doesn’t guarantee you’ll get one without a fight.
  • The legacy airlines, however, are pretty clear on one point: Even though they may assign you a seat on your initial reservation, they do not promise to assign or retain any specific seat assignment. If you don’t like your reassignment, tough.

Practical choices

If you get caught in a cancellation/rebooking mess, recognize, first, that no solution will be as good as your original arrangement. At best, look for the “least worst” option:

  • You can, of course, accept the revision with a shrug and chalk it up to fate. Or search out a better itinerary, on your original line, and ask to be re-rebooked.
  • But if the best your original line can offer would result in a real hardship—getting to your destination a day late, for example, or in the middle of the night—consider making a fight of it. If some other line can provide a better alternative, ask your original line to reroute you.
  • If your line refuses to reroute you, you can ask for —and probably get—a refund. But keep in mind that a full, immediate refund might not satisfy the general tort-law standard of making you “whole.” By the time you get your refund, you may find it impossible to get a seat on another line at anything like your original fare. If you have to pay a lot more for an acceptable new ticket, consider hauling your first line into small claims court. Although you have no clear-cut contractual guidelines to serve as a basis for a claim, at least equity is on your side.
  • When you want to fix a problem like this, always start with whatever supplier actually sold you your original ticket—the airline, if you bought direct, otherwise your travel agent or online ticket outlet.

The only bright spot in this entire dismal picture, if there is one, is that much of the likely downsizing has already occurred. Still, you may well see more schedule shuffling before the overall airline picture improves.

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