Wednesday, June 6, 2012

My Flights Have Been Changed! What Can I Do?

In the current economic environment, we are seeing many flight schedules changed or flights canceled by airlines before passengers are due to fly. Flights booked early, six months or more before flying, are particularly vulnerable to changes as the flight dates get closer.

While the majority of flight schedule changes are nothing more than changing a flight by a few minutes, some are major changes.  We have seen direct flights changed to indirect and flights canceled that affect a connecting flight - resulting in a long layover between connecting flights - even a day or so.

We were recently victims of flight changes. Three months before traveling, we purchased tickets for a flight leaving JFK at 6 AM, arriving in Orlando at 9:00.  Our connecting flight from Orlando was at 10:15 to San Jose Costa Rica.

We were contacted a month after booking by our airline advising us that our 6 AM flight was canceled, and putting us on the next flight at 8:30 would not get us into Orlando on time for our connecting flight. Our option was to fly into Orlando the night before, stay at a hotel at our own expense to make the 10:15 flight to San Jose or to fly out of another airport farther away that had a 6 AM flight.  Because the airline had another option that didn't incur an overnight stay (leaving from a different airport), they did not have to reimburse us for flying in the night before.

A month before we were to leave, we were again contacted by the same airline advising us that our return flight home from Orlando to JFK was changed to an earlier flight time - and we would not make the connection with the 12:30 flight we had leaving San Jose.  We had two options - fly into LaGuardia Airport, or  pay again for an overnight hotel in Orlando and fly home the following day.  Since we weren't going to pay for another hotel, we opted to return to LGA - at an additional cost of $70 for a cab ride home.  What the airline did do was give us a $60 credit for a future flight in lieu of the fact that they inconvenienced us not with one flight but with both.

What should you do if you are contacted by your airline with a flight change?  If you read the Terms and Conditions on your tickets, you will find that every airline has the option of changing flights for various reasons.

 First - stay calm.  This doesn't mean you will be left in the lurch. If an airline makes a significant schedule change that makes your itinerary unworkable, it will try to rebook you on an alternate flight, on a space available basis. If that doesn't work, the airline will refund your fare without penalty. What qualifies as a substantial schedule change depends on the carrier. One carrier's contract of carriage doesn't specify a timeline, while anothers rules stipulate that a two-hour shift in arrival or departure time is grounds for rebooking or a refund.  You will need to review your particular airlines contract of carriage (or if you have wisely booked through a travel agent, your travel agent can do this for you).

Next, go online to your airline's website and see what flights are available for your travel dates.  When Delta Airlines changed a connecting flight on us from Seattle to Vancouver, they rescheduled us on a 4 PM flight. We went online and found there were two earlier flights and had that information to give the airline rep. when we called to say that the new flight was not acceptable.  (Your travel agent can usually see the flights and how many seats are available).

If there are no other flights, check flights for the prior day or from another nearby airport.  If you find flights that are acceptable, tell the airline rep. when you call that you want to be put on the flights you found open. Just be aware that you may have to pay for your own hotel.

If you find no viable alternatives, check other airlines online to see if they have flights available.  If they do and your airline has a reciprocal agreement with that airline, ask your airline if they can put you on those flights.  If your airline does not have a reciprocal agreement, you will have to ask them to cancel your reservation and rebook yourself on another airline. The airline has to give you a full refund if they have no acceptable options for you.

Just be aware that this is likely to be your most expensive option, as flights purchased several months in advance are usually much lower in price than last minute flight bookings.  You will receive a credit card refund within a few days from your airline, but your new flights could be quite a bit more expensive.

If you have wisely booked through a travel agent, these are the steps your travel agent will do when you contact them if you are contacted directly by the airline.

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