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

Dear stumbled, My question is about airlines changing routes, a huge frustration for me since returning to travel after a pandemic brea...


My question is about airlines changing routes, a huge frustration for me since returning to travel after a pandemic break. I’ll book a direct flight at the right time, 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 that departed Hartford, Connecticut, at 12:30 p.m. on April 17 and arrived in Tampa three hours later. . Perfect. But on February 15, Southwest sent me an e-mail telling me that they had transferred me to a 6:15 p.m. flight with an almost three-hour layover in Nashville, bringing me to Tampa at 1:10 a.m.! Why is it OK? It’s like I bought a nice Subaru Forester and they delivered me a rundown, rusty Trans Am and said that was the only option. Phoebe, MA

Leave it to the airlines to make car dealerships seem transparent by comparison. While you could certainly sue your fictitious dealer for breach of contract, the real Southwest was within its contractual right to cancel your original flight and put you on that midnight plane out of Nashville.

No law prohibits an airline from unilaterally changing your itinerary, and in such cases, the main rule that the US government asks airlines to follow is flimsy. If a carrier imposes a new itinerary on a customer that would result in a “significant delaythe company must offer you a refund, in your case $264 each for two “Wanna Get Away” fares, the equivalent of Southwest economy class.

They did, but as you told me on Zoom, canceling the trip wouldn’t do: you wanted to go to Florida and you had already booked accommodation. The airline gave you another option, saying you could search for an alternate southwest route and then make the change online or through customer service (which you did, painstakingly, as we’ll get to later) .

Dan Landson, a spokesman for the South West, said while he couldn’t go into specifics about your individual case, “nothing out of the ordinary happened.”

In fact, it was all too ordinary: from other readers, friends and members of my own family, I recently received several similar tales of misfortune. But it’s hard to pinpoint numbers 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, and does not FlightAwarethe go-to site for airline delay and cancellation statistics, according to company spokeswoman Kathleen Bangs.

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

But Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta, said at the start of 2021 “there were a lot of schedule changes beyond anything we’ve seen before” as the carrier added more flights and made other adjustments to its existing schedule. This would not be surprising for Delta and other carriers during the pandemic, given the unpredictability not only of customer demand, but also of crew retirements and illnesses and delays in the delivery of new aircraft due to supply chain disruptions.

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

If you’re bored now, Phoebe, you’re not going to be like that at all next. You have most likely fallen victim to industry-wide policies that discriminate against a specific type of customer – let’s call them “normal” – who choose the cheapest airfare they can find, regardless the airline company.

This is important because, according to Professor Acharya, airline algorithms rank passengers in order of importance, based on variables that may include fare class, loyalty status, whether you paid in miles or dollars, your party size and whether you are an airline. employee.

If you need advice on a best-laid travel plan gone wrong, email trippedup@nytimes.com.


As you told me, Phoebe, you were able to find two other options on the Southwest website that worked better for you. The best was an equally convenient (for you) midday flight from Providence, which matched your original itinerary almost exactly, the other a direct evening flight from Hartford on your desired travel date. You were appalled when the site wouldn’t let you take the Providence flight, and in a vexing eight-hour Twitter chat with Southwest the next day, you learned it was because Providence and Hartford weren’t “co- terminals” – a frustrating piece of jargon meaning the airline didn’t consider them interchangeable. But you finally booked that evening flight from Hartford.

It’s annoying, but the big mystery to me is why weren’t you automatically re-booked on that evening flight. Mr. Landson assumed that by the time your number came up in the seat reassignment process, others had filled the vacant seats on the flight, but seats became available by the time you looked.

When I presented this answer to Professor Archarya, he warned that there might also be an “obscure” possibility. Airlines sometimes change algorithms to give weight to revenue considerations over customer satisfaction, he said, and it was theoretically possible that Southwest opened some of those Hartford seats in Tampa to maximize revenue. selling later. Mr Landson objected, saying that in cases like this, Southwest always books passengers on the next available flight if there is enough space for their group.

Going forward, you and other readers can take steps to minimize these frustrations, although in most cases it will cost time, money, or possibly both.

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

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, spending an extra $20 or even $50 as you progress to loyalty status. (Airline brand credit cards can help, although they have their own problems.) The status also helps when flights are canceled at the last minute.

Thirdly, and perhaps only worth it when you have a narrow window in which to arrive for a wedding or other important event, this is what George Hobica, founder of airfarewatchdog.com, suggests: Purchase a fully refundable second seat on another airline around the same time. Refundable flights are more expensive, but you can cancel and get your money back any time before your scheduled departure. So if your original ticket is changed for an unacceptable time, you get a refund on it and steal your save; if your original does not change, you void your refundable backup.

Of course, the line between corporate greed and customer satisfaction is deeply hidden in secret airline algorithms. But I was struck by the fact that we could solve at least part of the problem if the airlines thought that we would be willing to pay more for them to create more slack in the system. I talked to Ms. Bangs from FlightAware about it.

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

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Newsrust - US Top News: To help! The airline changed my flight itinerary (for the worse)
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