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Who should notify you with a schedule change?

More than 50 years ago, during a summer I worked reservations for a major airline, I arranged a flight for my grandmother from New York to Keene, New Hampshire. She bought her ticket well in advance, but about a month before her flight, the airline cancelled all service to Keene and we had to make alternative arrangements. The airline notified her of the change as soon as it happened, but it still caused us a minor amount of hassle. The airline expressed its pleasure that the only one who had an advance reservation on that flight was a relative of an employee—nevermind that having just one reservation was possibly a contributing cause to the cancellation.

Air travel has changed a lot since then, but airlines still alter their schedules—especially in today’s climate of downsizing. A reader recently emailed, “Is an airline or online ticket outlet under any obligation to notify you when your flight has been changed or canceled? This past Friday we showed up at 7 a.m. for our 9 a.m. flight only to find out that it had been cancelled a month ago! Although the airline put us on a later flight, the change caused problems with our rental car plans. We booked through Orbitz, which had our contact info. Ethically, either Orbitz or the airline should have notified us, right?”

Short answer: Right! One or the other, or even both, should have notified you—not only notified you, but also asked if the suggested rebooking was OK or if you’d prefer something else. But this seems to be a situation where the legal responsibility falls between the chairs.

The agency…

In general, my advice has always been to hold the organization that actually sold you the service responsible for notifying you of any changes. Since you bought through Orbitz, that principle says that Orbitz should have notified you.

But the relative responsibilities of agencies and airlines have always been something of a legal tangle. Agents often take the position that once the sale is made, your deal is with the airline, not the agent, and the airline is then responsible for everything subsequent to the sale. Airlines, of course, like to take the opposite side, and you can all too easily be caught between two companies, both involved in the deal and neither willing to accept full responsibility when something goes wrong.

In pre-Internet days, my regular travel agent would almost surely have notified me of such a change immediately. But an online mega-agency might or might not have systems in place to take care of such contingencies. The “customer service” area of the Orbitz website actually says nothing about this sort of case. Orbitz does have an elaborate “TLC” system to notify customers of changes, but you have to enroll in the program first.

…Or the airline?

Regardless of how you bought your ticket—and whether or not an agency notifies you—it seems to me that the airline bears responsibility for notifying you of a change in schedule. The airline (1) is the actual instigator of the schedule change, (2) knows exactly who has reservations on the cancelled flight, and (3) has all of the contact information necessary to notify everyone affected.

But here, again, I can find nothing specific about an airline’s responsibility to notify you of a schedule change in advance of the flight date. The big lines’ “contracts of carriage” statements are full of details on what they will and will not do in the event of a cancellation or delay once you get to the airport or onboard the flight, but the ones I looked at had nothing to say about notification of cancellations well in advance.

What to do

Clearly, the only sure way to minimize problems like this is to check your reservation the day before you’re supposed to leave. You can usually do that on the Internet. And it’s probably a good idea, especially if you made a reservation a long time in advance.

But I hate advising you or anyone else of yet another need to re-verify what should be a firm deal. If you actually tried to verify all of the contingencies other travel writers and I have advised you to over the years, you’d have to approach each trip with a 10-page checklist. Bleah!

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