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Airline Schedule Changes

Carol Sottili

Seems not a day goes by without airlines announcing schedule cuts, mergers or bankruptcies.

In recent weeks, Delta said it would reduce domestic capacity by 13 percent in the second half of 2008. United will cut service by 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008. US Airways is going to cut its capacity by eight percent, and Continental will reduce flights by 11 percent.

Travel between major markets hasn't been affected as much as to smaller cities, and domestic travel has been impacted more than international. American Eagle, for example, is ceasing service to Albany, N.Y.; Providence, R.I.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and San Luis Obispo, Calif. United will cut off-season service to Myrtle Beach, S.C. American is pulling out of Oakland, Calif. But even some of the larger markets are taking a hit: American, for example, has announced major cuts in service at New York's LaGuardia, Chicago O'Hare, St. Louis and Dallas-Fort Worth. Internationally, Air Tahiti Nui says it will suspend its flights from JFK to Tahiti in the off season (November-April). And the French airline L'Avion, which offered cheap all-business-class flights from New York to Paris, has been acquired by British Airway's OpenSkies.

So what does it mean to the average air traveler? Higher prices, fewer choices and more schedule changes. Our advice:

* Don't depend on the airline to inform you of schedule changes. Keep checking your itinerary up to the time you depart, and check your return before you show up at the airport.

* Don't expect the airlines to make it right. If a schedule change means you'll need to spend an extra two nights in a hotel, you'll have to pay for that. If you'll suddenly need to connect twice, the airline is not going to put you on a competitor's more convenient flight. Read carefully the airline's contract of carriage, which spells out its legal obligations (it's not a bad idea to carry a copy with you). Most now contain language such as "at our discretion," which gets the airline off the hook. About the only recourse most will offer is a full refund, but that isn't going to help if your flight is just days away and you've plunked down hundreds for a hotel.

* Check into travel insurance, but don't assume that it will cover you. Go to www.squaremouth.com or www.insuremytrip.com to compare policies, and read the fine print.

Share your stories about how schedule changes and cancellations have affected your travel plans, and how you've handled it. Maybe your tip will help!

By Carol Sottili |  July 7, 2008; 1:45 PM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Carol Sottili
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United has pulled out of FLL and PBI, effectively ruining my Christmas plans. I have called half a dozen times and written four emails, and as of yet they've refused to put me on another carrier out of either of those two cities. The best they say they'll do is fly me out of Miami, which is 90 minutes away on a good day for my family in West Palm.

I've been a loyal United flyer for five years now, and the absolutely awful service I've gotten from their Manila and India based service teams have made me seriously reconsider ever using them again.

Posted by: Liz | July 7, 2008 3:20 PM

Why aren't airlines obligated to notify affected passengers? If I buy something from any retailer, and for some reason it won't be delivered, they let me know and offer a revised delivery date or an alternative product to purchase.

What makes airline different in how they sell their product, and why can't they communicate with their customers? Why should the responsibility by placed on the customer to find out that the retailer has cancelled delivery of a product that they have already paid for?

Posted by: Frequent Flier | July 7, 2008 3:23 PM

Delta cancelled two connection hops when I travelled to the Philippines last April. On the way out, they cancelled it after the schedule departure time, and refused to tell us why. We nearly missed our connection to Hong Kong (and therefore the connection after that to Cebu) because they wouldn't tell us anything.

Then on the way home, they cancelled the connecting flight from SFO to home. They "graciously" agreed to put us on another flight (seriously, they told us that they were going "above and beyond" and "being more than fair" by putting us another flight at all!). We waited in line for 3 hours to get the tickets changed, and then spent 2 hours in security because a last-minute flight change makes one a "heightened security risk."

Since that was the 4th time in a row Delta has screwed up my flight plans and not cared in the slightest, I have to say I won't be flying with them anymore.

Posted by: Cecilotta | July 7, 2008 8:22 PM

We booked tickets about four months in advance to get a good fare to Anguilla in April this year to a friend's wedding - originally were booked through American, I think, but after the third or fourth schedule change made our weekend trip impossible, we canceled that flight and booked with Continental, who - you guessed it, changed the schedule. On this trip, all of the carriers did provide us with notice.

Then, in May, because of friends' weddings and family obligations, we booked a slightly insane trip with five different legs over ten days. We booked four months in advance through a travel agent to get a great fare. When we reconfirmed our flights a few days before taking off, we learned to our chagrin that the flights of two of the four legs on American and the one leg that we had on United had been switched to another flight with an hour or two's change in the schedule. Even though both hubby and I have elite status on these airlines, and the airlines have our email addresses, we got NO notification whatsoever for these schedule changes. The airlines' excuse was that our travel agent should have kept us informed.

Most annoying, though? I fly to Reno/Tahoe a few times a year to visit family. Every year the connections get worse and the prices go up. The prices per ticket for a reasonable schedule (i.e., one connection of less than 3 hours) have gone up over the last three years from $350 to $500 to $650 and now to $850. With Continental exiting the Reno/Tahoe market entirely, it can only get worse. I can weather schedule changes, but $850 for a restricted coach ticket, purchased five weeks in advance? Now that's ugly.

The takeaway? It's a brave new, ridiculous world - as peeved as I am about it, it's time to start lowering expectations. If you reserve a flight more than 3 weeks in advance, think of it as a "placeholder" for a flight at roughly those times, rather than a real ticket for a real airplane. Check your reservation every few weeks, and don't trust the airline to notify you. Remember that you should have the option to cancel your ticket entirely if the airline messes with your schedule. For last minute changes, read up on your airline's rule 240 clauses (and keep whether your airline actually has that type of provision when you're booking your flights), and carry the contract of carriage with you, together with a comprehensive list of that day's flights on all carriers (OAG is good for this) - although CS is right that airlines will probably be Very unhelpful about assisting, this will provide you with at least some ammunition.

The airlines' new business model is to discourage people from flying and to make sure that those people who do still fly will pay much more. Won't this be fun . . .

Posted by: adub | July 7, 2008 9:13 PM

I have been trying for days now to get a ticket to travel to Cartagena Colombia on Spirit Airlines from Fort Lauderdale, but as soon as I click on the buttons to choose my ticket, and when it is supposed to direct me to "purchase ticket" the website stops working! I called them but I was directed to someone in India who kept telling "I am trying to help you Mam" without ever understanding what I was trying to tell him! Most frustrating! And I still cannot get my ticket after two weeks!

Posted by: Kilimlady | July 8, 2008 7:51 AM

Kilimlady, your best bet is to pay more and book with a real airline. Spirit is among the worst in every regard.

Posted by: Liz | July 8, 2008 8:43 AM

I also fly to Reno/Tahoe with some regularity (don't see two of those every day at the Washington Post...), and it is getting consistently more difficult. Reno is losing lots of flights, and I wonder if other mid-size cities are feeling the same pinch.

Posted by: Julia | July 8, 2008 9:40 AM

Completely agree that anything booked out more than 4 weeks should be considered, at best, a placeholder with legacy carriers (and don't assume you won't get changed more than once...)

There's some merit in booking with carriers such as Southwest who don't let you book out a year in advance - while you have to wait for their schedule to open, they tend to stick with what's published: the only time I've had an unplanned change on Southwest was after New Orleans was shut down post-Katrina, resulting in schedule changes affected the entire system - and only then, it was a matter of 15 minutes or so, not hours or days.

Posted by: swdc | July 8, 2008 10:54 AM

In Europe the European Community law provides consumers with far more rights than the US carriers. Write to your congressman and ask that Congress write legisation that requires airlines to live up to their promises; but don't hold your breath as long as lobbyists rule in Washington.

Posted by: Ian Stuart | July 8, 2008 5:53 PM

this is why we need a passenger bill of rights. Maybe all of these inefficient old airlines need to go out of business so we can start all over again from scratch. People accept this crap because they need to travel and have no choice. The airlines know this, so they just keep on screwing people over because they can get away with it with total impunity. The system is totally broken.

Posted by: Glenn | July 9, 2008 3:31 PM

Ian, have you ever tried collecting on those "rights" that the EU provides? It's damn near impossible to get the airlines to pay out. Or, in the case of Alitalia, to even respond.

Posted by: Liz | July 9, 2008 3:38 PM

Delta is slashing flights all over during Christmas. I just lost my flight to BGI the day after Christmas. They recommended first that I refund the ticket and start over. I couldnt believe that the Customer Service reps first idea was to refund the amount. I paid 650 Each and the ticket is now 2400. What a joke. I wonder if the think the American People are stupid enough to fall for that.

Posted by: Dan in Fort Wayne, IN | July 15, 2008 12:07 PM

So far, my November frequent-flier booking on United from Orlando to Tokyo via Chicago is doing fine--no changes.

This likely has something to do with Orlando being a major convention city.

Posted by: David Martin | July 15, 2008 4:35 PM

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