Navigating Airline Schedule Changes in the COVID Era
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, many travelers have been faced with airline schedule changes at a much higher rate than usual. Airlines are struggling with forecasting demand during a constantly evolving situation. But instead of cutting routes entirely from the schedule, airlines across the world are only cancelling flights 2-3 months in advance, and leaving the rest for sale. In other words, airlines are publishing and selling flights they already know they will not run.
Airlines are pretending they’ll run high frequencies on routes that will, within the final weeks or months before departure, be reduced drastically, or cut entirely. They’re happy to sell you one thing, knowing full well you’ll be getting something inferior by the time the travel date rolls around. While I don’t think they’re doing anything illegal, this is clearly highly deceptive and unethical. They capture customer revenue early, and then once the departure date nears, passengers who booked a nonstop 1pm flight find out they’re now on a 6am flight 2 days later with a connection, with no option to rebook on another airline, just a refund. They’re kicked to the curb of non-customers who must pay the then-current fares; booking early saves you nothing in the end.
Travelers should never trust an airline’s published resumption date of a route unless it’s very close to departure. Some airlines like Allegiant had a habit of cancelling flights with just a week’s notice or less, waiting until the last minute to see if enough customers booked that it was worthwhile for them to actually operate the flight. Countless passengers were stranded and no doubt booked expensive last-minute flights on other carriers as Allegiant repeatedly cancelled flights without warning in the final week before departure.
So, what can you do when the airline changes or cancels the route you’ve booked?
Airlines like American and Delta have complex internal rules regarding how they will handle various schedule change situations, depending on how many hours the schedule changed by, or whether other airlines are involved. Generally speaking, if your trip is significantly changed, airlines will allow you to move to new flights of your choice for free within a few days on either side of your original trip dates. Airline agents are trained to say “no” to any requests beyond basic, clearly-within-policy ones at first, and ask you to pay the fare difference for anything else. But in the end, airlines have a huge amount of discretion; if they feel your situation warrants an exception, they have the power to make lots of things happen, from rebooking your trip many months into the future after you’ve been told they can only move it ±1 day, to rebooking you at no cost on most other airlines. Getting such resolutions usually requires a combination of knowledgeability, persistence, escalation to supervisors/corporate customer care departments, or contacting alternate call centers, such as Delta’s Singapore reservations department or American’s call center in Australia.
Now, most people aren’t booking speculative cheap trips during off-peak periods, hoping for a schedule change, so they can move their dates for free to spring break or Christmas. (I don’t think it’s reasonable for airlines to allow people to do this either, but I certainly encourage you to try 😉) What people ARE doing is booking trips only to have airlines change nonstops to connecting flights, or move people from lie-flat business class seats to recliner seats due to an aircraft downgauge, and then tell them that if they want to postpone their trip a few days, weeks, or even months into the future - whatever is necessary to bring their itinerary to resemble what they originally purchased again - they’d be responsible for the fare difference. Ummm, what?! How are airlines allowed to get away with this?
Side note: It’s actually quite surprising to me that airlines have such strict policies in place, because for the majority of customers (who aren’t traveling on mistake-fare tickets…) it seems like it would be beneficial for the airline to allow customers to move their trip much further into the future. Not only does it build goodwill with the customer who has just experienced the significant inconvenience of replanning their trip for a future date, but it also literally retains them as a customer, instead of just refunding their ticket, which loses their business. I’d love to see airline data on how many people in such situations choose to refund vs pay fare difference vs rebook on another carrier.
I cannot count the number of times I have been told by front-line reservations agents that it’s impossible to move a schedule-changed Delta flight more than one day in either direction without paying the fare difference, only to have a supervisor or a Delta Singapore reservations agent do it for me without hesitation. The same goes for every major airline; they all try to get you to pay at first, until someone with a smidgen of understanding gets on the line and hears you out.
One of the biggest reasons to avoid low-cost carriers is their inability to rebook you on other carriers during irregular operations (IRROPS). Since most LCCs have no airline partnerships, they will only offer you other flights on their own airline, which might be many days from your original booking, or a refund (at which point you’re back to square one and have to buy a new ticket on another airline, which is likely more expensive than when you booked the first ticket).
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