Air travel tribulations

Published On: Mar 31 2014 03:50:33 PM EDT
Updated On: Apr 01 2014 07:40:00 AM EDT

When you buy an airline ticket and want to change your flight day or time, you'll probably pay a hefty fee. In fact, airlines collected $2.7 billion in "reservation change" and "cancellation fees" last year. But what about when an airline changes your flight day or time in advance?

When Nicole Tarczanin took a Caribbean cruise with her family, they all had a great time.  But getting to the port was not exactly smooth sailing.   

"Our mother immediately called us, my sister and I, in a panic, saying, 'What are we going to do?'" she explained.
 
Months after they booked flights, the airline changed the schedule.  Their plane would land 10 hours later than initially planned.  But that meant they'd miss the boat!

"We called the airline and they basically just told us there wasn't anything else that they could do, that all flights were booked," said Tarczanin.

The airline refunded the frequent flyer miles she and her family used for the tickets, but now they had to pay more than $700 for seats on a different carrier.

 "We were extremely angry and upset," said Tarczanin.

So, what are your rights if you're like Tarczanin and a schedule change doesn't work with your schedule?  We're not talking about delays due to weather or mechanical problems, but changes made in advance that might mean your plane will leave hours earlier, or hours later, even the next day.   

"If the airline has changed your flight and that flight is not convenient for you, you can absolutely get a refund," explained Jean Medina with Airlines for America.
 
But travel experts say a refund might not get you to your destination on time, or cover possible additional expenses like an extra night in a hotel or a potentially more expensive ticket on another airline. One couple said they had to cut their wedding reception an hour short because of a schedule change.

"Airlines can change their schedules without any repercussions whatsoever.  There's no federal law that prevents them from doing so," explained George Hobicam an air travel expert.

If you check the fine print on the many airline's websites they have warnings like, "Flight schedules are not guaranteed."  The Airline Industry Association says schedule changes happen rarely but Hobca says they could be on the rise.   

"Increasingly airlines are eliminating flights, they're not flying where they used to fly," he said.

JetBlue says, "Schedule changes are an inherent part of the airline industry..." and American Airlines said, "...We make adjustments as necessary based on crew and aircraft availability."  

The industry association says two million people fly 25,000 flights each day and the vast majority go as scheduled.

"Airlines want to get their customers to their destination as quickly and as efficiently as possible," said Medina.

But when changes do affect flyers, the advocacy group Flyers Rights is now calling on the federal government to require airlines to pay for some of the extra costs passengers incur from schedule changes.  

"I don't think schedule changes are a very fair thing for airlines to do." Tarczanin added.

The U.S. Department of Transportation does not track the number of airline schedule changes.  The agency tells us it isn't working on regulations that would require airlines to compensate passengers for schedule change expenses, but it notes consumers can often file in small claims court to seek reimbursement from an airline.  

Hobica points out that most travel insurance policies don't cover expenses related to schedule changes, either.

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