To help! The airline changed my flight itinerary (for the worse)

My question is about airline itinerary change, a huge frustration for me since I returned to travel after a pandemic hiatus. I’ll book a direct flight at a good time and then get an email days or weeks later with an inconvenient time change or an extra layover or both. The worst was when I was planning a trip with my daughter to Tampa, Florida. In January, I booked a direct flight on Southwest Airlines leaving Hartford, Conn., at 12:30 pm on April 17 and arriving in Tampa three hours later. . Perfect. But on February 15, Southwest sent me an email informing me that I had been moved to a 6:15 pm flight with a nearly three hour layover in Nashville, arriving in Tampa at 1:10 am! Why is it okay? It’s like I bought a nice Subaru Forester and they brought me a beat-up, rusty Trans Am and told me it was the only option. Phoebe, Massachusetts

Let the airlines make car dealerships look transparent by comparison. While he could certainly sue his fictional distributor for breach of contract, the real Southwest had their contractual rights to cancel his original flight and put him on that midnight plane from Nashville.

There is no law that prohibits an airline from unilaterally changing its itinerary, and in such cases, the only main rule that the US government requires airlines to follow is a weak rule. If an airline imposes a new itinerary on a customer that would result in a “significant delay,” the carrier must offer a refund, in their case $264 each for two “Wanna Get Away” fares, the equivalent of Southwest economy.

They did, but as you told me on Zoom, canceling the trip would not work: you wanted to go to Florida and you had already arranged accommodation. The airline gave him another option, saying he could look up an alternative Southwest itinerary, then make the change online or through customer service (which he did, painfully, as we’ll see later).

Dan Landson, a Southwest spokesman, said that while he couldn’t go into detail about his individual case, “nothing out of the ordinary occurred.”

In fact, it was all too common: from other readers, friends, and members of my own family, I’ve received several similar stories of grief recently. But it’s hard to pin down figures on flights that change more than a week before departure. The federal government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics does not collect such data, according to the bureau’s Ramond Robinson, nor does FlightAware, the go-to site for statistics on airline delays and cancellations, according to a company spokeswoman, Kathleen Bangs.

The six airlines (American, Delta, United, Southwest, Alaska, JetBlue) I asked did not provide specific data. To be fair, such numbers would be very tricky, with many airlines scheduling flights 330 days in advance that are “essentially placeholders,” said Suresh Acharya, a professor at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, who has worked in airlines. optimization systems for two decades. Schedules solidify 90 to 180 days in advance, he said, and many changes, like a move to a larger plane, are barely noticed by customers.

But Morgan Durrant, a Delta spokesman, said that in early 2021 “there were a lot of schedule changes, beyond what we’ve seen before,” as the airline added more flights and made other adjustments to its existing schedule. That wouldn’t be surprising for Delta and other airlines during the pandemic, considering the unpredictability of not only customer demand, but also crew retirements and illnesses and delays in new aircraft delivery due to supply chain disruptions. of supply.

When schedule changes occur, Southwest’s Mr. Landson said, “we accommodate all of our customers on the next available flight. In some situations, that could mean a much later flight than originally planned. It’s something we don’t like to see happen, but it does happen from time to time.”

If you’re upset right now, Phoebe, you’re not going to be like that at all. Most likely, you have fallen victim to industry-wide policies that discriminate against a specific type of customer, let’s call it “normal”, who chooses the cheapest airfare they can find, no matter what airline they are on.

That’s important because, according to Professor Acharya, airline algorithms rank passengers in order of importance, based on variables that can include fare class, loyalty status, whether you paid in miles or dollars, how big is your group and if it is an airline. employee.

If you need advice on a better designed travel plan gone wrong, email trippedup@nytimes.com.


Like you told me, Phoebe, you were able to find two other options on the Southwest website that worked better for you. The best was a noon flight from Providence, just as convenient (for you), which matched your original itinerary almost precisely, the other, a direct overnight flight from Hartford on your desired travel date. He was dismayed when the site wouldn’t let him board the Providence flight, and in a bewildering eight-hour intermittent Twitter conversation with Southwest the next day, he learned it was because Providence and Hartford weren’t “co-terminals,” a frustrating jargon that it means the airline did not consider them interchangeable. But in the end you rebooked that afternoon flight from Hartford.

That’s annoying, but the big mystery to me is why you weren’t automatically rebooked on that afternoon flight. Mr. Landson guessed that by the time his number came up in the seat reassignment process, others had filled the available seats on the flight, but spots were open by the time you searched.

When I presented that answer to Professor Archarya, he warned that there might also be a “grim” possibility. Airlines sometimes modify algorithms to weight revenue considerations over customer satisfaction, he said, and it was theoretically possible for Southwest to keep some of those Hartford-to-Tampa seats open to maximize revenue by selling later. Mr. Landson objected to that, saying that in cases like this, Southwest always books passengers on the next available flight if there’s enough room for their group.

In the future, you and other readers can take steps to minimize such frustrations, though in most cases it will cost time, money, or perhaps both.

One option is to simply book closer to the date of the flight. As Mr. Acharya said, the schedules become much more stable at 90 days, so the later you book after that, the less chance of changes. Of course, this doesn’t help in the event of weather issues and Covid spikes wiping out teams, and you might miss out on early bird prices, of course.

Another option, which I am now considering for myself, is to abandon the “cheapest fare wins” strategy. Favor the airline that flies the most on the routes you frequent by spending an additional $20 or even $50 as you move toward loyalty status. (Airline-brand credit cards can help, though they have their own problems.) The status also helps when flights are canceled at the last minute.

Third, and possibly only worth it when you have a tight window in which to arrive for a wedding or other important event, is what George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, suggests: Buy a fully refundable second seat on an airline different at about the same time. Refundable flights are more expensive, but you can cancel and receive your money at any time before scheduled departure. So if your original ticket is changed at an unacceptable time, you get a refund for that one and fly your backup; if your original doesn’t change, you cancel your refundable backup.

Of course, the line between corporate greed and customer satisfaction is hidden deep within the airlines’ secret algorithms. But I realized that we could solve at least part of the problem if the airlines thought we’d be willing to pay more across the board for them to build more slack into the system. I mentioned that to Ms. Bangs at FlightAware.

“We have a system like that,” he joked. “It’s called private aviation.”

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