Ridiculous or not? A game of musical chairs no one likes to play

John Koehn planned his cross-country trip from Washington to Medford, Ore., with his wife and three-month-old daughter carefully. He booked their flight a year in advance to make sure they could sit together.

And then, just a few months before the trip, everything fell apart.

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When Koehn logged on to the United Airlines website to check his reservation, he discovered his flights had been changed, along with his seat assignments.

“So now the airlines can change flights without even notifying customers,” he says. “Could it possibly get worse?”

Well, yes. Airlines don’t just switch out flights to suit their purposes — a so-called “equipment change” — without compensating their passengers. Sometimes, they try to monetize the switches.

Consider what happened to Andy Eckel when he booked a Delta Air Lines flight for his elderly parents.

“We specifically purchased tickets — and paid more than we would have otherwise — that departed at around 9 a.m. due to concerns about my parents arriving home at night and possible delays that are common,” he told me.

But two months before his parents’ trip, Delta changed their flight to a new one that left six hours later.

“We resigned ourselves to the situation, assuming that the earlier flight was no longer available,” he says.

But on the day of the flight, he was surprised to learn the original flight was available, but it would cost $1,400 extra to have his parents moved back.

“I called the airline’s customer service line and asked if they could get me on the original flight for the original price, and was told, “no,” he says.

After he complained, Delta sent his parents a form letter and a $125 voucher on a future flight. “This is a bit insulting, since the airline themselves put the value of the change at $1,400,” he told me.

Delta’s explanation, which I’ve seen time and again from other airlines, is that it needs to be flexible.

“In the process of providing air service over many different routes each day, we sometimes encounter mechanical problems, adverse weather, and other unavoidable interruptions,” it said, in explaining Eckel’s switch. “These are situations faced by all airlines and no carrier can guarantee that all flights will depart and arrive as planned.”

Michael Miller, a vice president at the American Aviation Institute, a Washington think tank, says airlines change engines, avionics and other equipment as needed.

“Sometimes they can plan for it, sometimes they can’t,” he adds. Airlines don’t want to make these switches, and they don’t think about profiting from them.

“It’s a pain for them,” he explained. “Imaging re-seating 250 people and getting a different set of pilots for a different plane just hours before departure. Most airlines have spare aircraft of the same type, especially at their hubs, but that not always the case. You don’t want to have too many $100 million aircraft sitting around.”

But to passengers, it does seem as if the airline industry has a set of double standards. On the one hand, it allows itself to reschedule flights and arbitrarily change your seat assignments. On the other hand, if you decide to change your plans, it charges you a fee.

It’s not as bad as it seems. Under most airline contracts of carriage — the legal agreements between you and the airline — if a flight is canceled and rescheduled for later, you’re entitled to a full refund. Normally, that’s a meaningless gesture, since a replacement flight on a different carrier would cost far more. Still, it’s nice to know the airline is required to refund your ticket.

But when it comes to seat assignments, airlines are under no similar obligation. If you accept the new flight, you’re doing it on its terms. It’s only required to offer you a seat in the same class of service.

Is that enough? Passengers think the game of musical chairs has gone too far when an airline doesn’t bother telling passengers about the change until they get to the airport, and especially when they appear to be trying to profit from an equipment change.

“I can only imagine a future where the airline changes your flight and then charges you for the difference,” says Koehn. “But hey, at least that would require them to notify you of the change.”

108 thoughts on “Ridiculous or not? A game of musical chairs no one likes to play

  1. Airlines need a mechanism to formally (i.e. in their reservation systems) connect reservations to identify and resolve these issues.  For our most recent trip, my wife and I were on the same itinerary out-bound and different return itineraries.  I called (and paid the money!!!) to work with a human reservation agent (at UAL) to make sure we were together on the outbound.  Then there was some sort of change in the schedule/equipment/whatever, and when I went to check in, we were in different seats. A call to UAL reservations produced no satisfaction. Fortunately the gate agent was able to put us together (apparently at least on UAL only gate agents can assign passengers to exit row seating.)   

    Since we often fly together one way (either out or back) when combining vacation with my work travel, we have a lot of experience with how hard it is to establish and maintain seats together.  You can’t do this on the on-line sites so you have to call (and pay).  Separating families is one of the worst things the airlines can do; they need to take this concern seriously.

    1. Depending on the route, that would mean confining solo travelers (like me) to never get a window or aisle seat and be ever constrained to middle-row seats, for the mere “crime” of we having no other traveler companion. 

      1. Not my experience/observation as a (previously very) frequent flier.  In fact I’ll often give up my seat to allow families to sit together, and that happens maybe 1 of 10 flights.

      2. I don’t understand your logic here.  I prefer to be seated with my husband, if possible (not the end of the world if we’re not, but it’s my preference) — if we sit together, he takes the window and I take the middle.  If we intentionally chose seats apart, we would both book a window.  People sitting together in groups of 2 or 3 would actually seem to free up more of those aisle/window seats, because at least one of the group would always be in a middle seat.

      3. @Andre That’s not true. If a couple sits together, one of them will take the middle seat. One aisle and one middle or one window and one middle. Taking the aisle and the window is NOT sitting together by definition.

    2. “Separating families is one of the worst things the airlines can do,” is another example of hyperbole. I’ve been married a long time and don’t worry that if my wife doesn’t sit with me I will have a nervous breakdown or that she will run off with her new seat mate. Might surprise you that your wife would enjoy a few hours NOT sitted next to you.

      1. Well your wife and my wife are different 🙂  

        But consider the situation with multi-generational families.  Separating children from parents and separating seniors needing assistance from their care providers are both experiences (a) cited in the example; (b) unpleasant experiences I’ve had with people sitting next to me. 

        1. People will probably throw stones at me for saying this, but I discovered that when my kids were about 12 years old that sitting them a few rows away from us was a good move. Instead of putting up with their fidgeting for hours, we could pretend to be strangers and express suspicions that those kids had been brought up by wolves.

          1. I would be willing to bet that when strangers realize that they will be trapped next to your small child for a couple of hours with no parent around, they will offer to change seats. I know I would.

          2. So instead of doing the right thing and booking seats together in the first place, just threaten foist your kid upon somebody like an irresponsible parent. Classy.

          3. But doesn’t today’s story point out that even IF you book seats together they don’t always stay that way? 

          4. Anything is possible, yes. But it seems more often than not, these situations are more due to a lack of preparation on the part of the family than the fault of the airline.

            Either way, I certainly wouldn’t do what some have suggested: just dumping my kid on another passenger, as if it’s suddenly their fault, rather than (most likely) my own or the airline.

          5. I’ve noticed that kids who misbehave with their parents are often well behaved when away from them..Go figure, huh?

          6. And I’ve noticed plenty of kids who behave just fine with their parents, whether on a plane flight or a long car ride.

            A friend of mine is a single parent with two boys. He said one of the greatest things that ever happened to them when traveling by car is that the older one can now sit in the front seat.

            But that’s still a far cry from handing off his older boy to somebody else and telling them to deal with him.

          7. As soon as I was able,  I expressed the desire to be seated away from my family. We were usually a unit of four: my parents and my kid brother, aside from myself. Airline seats as they were usually had one parent (usually Mom because she called dibbs) sitting in a row of 3 seats with myself and the kid brother. Dad would then sit elsewhere in the plane.

            From about age 5 onward, I begged to switch seats with Dad (or whoever the singleton parent was) so that I could sit apart from the family. It made me feel more grown up, and as a result I acted that way: no kicking seats/screaming/etc. I’d sit quietly with a book and my stranger seatmates would always compliment my behavior to my parents when the disembarkation process showed that I belonged to someone on the plane.

            I cannot LIKE your comment highly enough about sitting apart from your offspring. The proximity, but not immediacy, of my parents allowed me the opportunity to practice polite airplane behavior while in a safe-to-do-so situation. I hope to be able to repeat this gift for my children when they are of age.

      2. While I agree this is a bit of hyperbole, especially when it comes to husbands/wives, I can assure you that it is NOT hyperbole when it comes to parents/children.  I was once separated from 4-yr-old, after I’d pre-booked seats together.  For unknown reasons they moved my 4-yr-old daughter to be in a middle seat between two men.  NOT cool.  And the gate agents wouldn’t even help me – too busy.  Fortunately the FAs realized the absurdity and asked one of the men to switch seats, so I was able to sit with my child.

        1. I think that would breach the airline’s duty of care to your daughter. I’m glad the FA could sort it out.

  2. I don’t think they should be allowed to arbitrarily change seating or flight times without contacting the passengers. I don’t necessarily think compensation is always in order. For example, I choose flight times because I desire arriving at the destination at a certain time for a reason. I don’t want to suddenly find out I arrive 6 hours later. I’d like to opportunity to talk with the airline and work something out, maybe an alternate flight or different departure time closer to the original one, or even an earlier flight with a layover somewhere that would still get me close to my original arrival time. Passengers should never have a “too bad for you” answer from the airlines.

    1. “I don’t think they should be allowed to arbitrarily change seating or flight times without contacting the passengers.”
      – – – – – – — – – — – – – – — – –
      Over the years, I have been contacted by e-mail and/or phone by US Airways when there have been a change to my itineraries.  I book my flights directly with US Airways.  The problems are travelers who don’t book directly, travelers who don’t enter their e-mail address, etc. 

      1.  I primarily fly US as well and ALWAYS book on their website, yet in the past 12 months I’ve had two situations where the flight was cancelled and I had to go on a different flight.  The only reason I knew about these cancellations is that I’m a travel geek and am on the US website frequently and saw my booking tagged.  There was no phone call and no e-mail.  If I hadn’t been on the site, I wouldn’t have known about it until departure time when it would have been too late to get decent seat assignments (and yes, US Airways has EVERY conceivable way of contacting me possible – home phone, cell phone, multiple e-mail addresses, smoke signals, etc!).

        1.  I booked a trip with United in March for travel in July via United’s website
          (I always book directly with the airline – never third party sites).  I provided
          my email address with which I received a confirmation of my reservation.  Since
          then, there have been at least three changes to my trip that I only found out
          about because I went to the UAL website.


          When I booked my trip initially, I had paid extra for the “Premier Travel” option which included seats in Economy Plus.  After the first change, my new seat assignments were out of the Economy Plus area and I was unable to move my seat assignments myself.  I had to call customer service.

          If they have my email to send me a confirmation, they certainly can send an email notifying me of changes to my reservation.

        2. Are you enrolled in US Airways’ BeNotified notification program?  If not, log into your Dividend Miles account and it’s an option on the right side of the page. You can opt in for text, e-mail, and phone notifications.  If you are enrolled, then all I can suggest is check your reservations weekly and the day before and day of departure.

          1. Really?  Your response to “I’m enrolled in four ways to the airline to notify me of their changes” is “are you enrolled in this fifth way”?  Really?  Perhaps one of the first couple of venues should be considered accurate enough?

    2. The reasons they do this are almost never ‘arbitrary’. Delays, aircraft changes, schedule changes and cancellations all happen for a reason, and airlines don’t like it either.
      Also, all airlines that I know of will waive the change or cancellation fee if you actually ask (even if they don’t advertise it) for schedule changes of 2-4 hours or more (depending on the airline). But for changes such as half an hour, people are getting whiny for no reason.

    3. Thank you for this. !!!!

      Iceland Express recently renegotiated their flight slots with their hub airport and as a result delayed each side of my round trip by 2 hours. This was enough to leave me stranded in NYC as a result on the homeward leg. To that airline’s credit, they did try to book me on an earlier (though in this case it meant three days earlier) flight (which still would have stranded me in NYC, but for different reasons) as they only have one flight to the US per day, and only one leaving the US per day.

      I do wish I’d had the option of a full refund from that situation. Yes, a different ticket on a different carrier would have cost more, but it would have cost less than a hotel room in NYC.

  3. “Could it possibly get any worse?” he asks. The amount of hyperbole and entitlement from some of these posters boggles the mind.

    His problem — DC to Oregon is a thin route. A year is a long time to expect nothing to change in an airline’s schedule. I’m pretty sure the change was entirely within the airline’s contract of carriage.  If you can’t accept an occaisonal setback or change in plans, you problably shouldn’t travel. Things change. $125 for a courtesy, not an insult.

    1. You are confusing 2 different people up there.  The guy who said, “could it get any worse?” is John Koehn who was NOT notified that his flight had been changed.  How would YOU like to get to the airport ready to fly (with a baby no less) and find out that your flight had already left or wasn’t leaving for 10 hours? 

      The guy offered a $125 voucher was Andy Eckel who booked a specific flight for his parents and had them moved to a later flight even though the ORIGINAL flight was still on and apparently had seats (since he could have moved them back to the original flight for $1400). 

  4. I don’t think they should be able to change flight times within a certain time period (maybe 15 days of the flight) without compensation. And maybe within the 15-45 day window, they can only change an hour or two in either direction without compensation. Not sure what the compensation should be, though.Seating is a different story. I think finding a seat on a plane should be like finding a spot in a parking lot – first come, first served. I would suggest that the only time seats should be allowed to be reserved would be 1) in the case of a handicapp that required a specific seat and 2) a ticket for a minor should be allowed to be “linked” to a single adult ticket so that at least one parent/guardian is sitting with the child (more than one minor ticket could be linked to an adult fare, but only one adult fare to each child ticket). And perhaps all of these “linked” tickets could be grouped together, creating (for all intents and purposes) a “kiddie area”.

    1. If you think seats should not be reserved, fly Southwest and see how you like that type of arrangement.  It is the biggest thing I don’t like about them.  

      When I make my reservation, I like finding and reserving a seat that I would like to sit in so there are no surprises when I get on the plane.  If I make that reservation early enough, I get a large number of seats to choose from.  If I wait until the last minute t make my reservation, then I have mostly middle seats to choose from.  Isn’t this first come first served?

        1.  Same here. There are positives and negatives to each arrangement, but I prefer Southwest’s for several reasons.

          1. You don’t have to buy your ticket a year in advance to have your pick of the seats; you just have to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight. Even with business select and the option to pay for early check in, I’ve always been in the A boarding group when I’ve checked in as soon as it opens. Either way, it’s first-come, first-served – Southwest goes by when you check in and other carriers go by when you book. I don’t think either definition is inherently better, but personally I prefer Southwest’s.

          2. You’re not tied down to a particular seat. Sure, I may know that I like window seats near the front of the plane…but if I’m on Southwest and I see that my window seat near the front is located in front of a crying baby, or next to a guy who’s 400 pounds and hasn’t showered recently, I can just walk on by and find a different one. On other carriers, I’m stuck there unless the flight is empty enough that I can switch.

          3. The boarding process is actually easier. People talk about “cattle call” boarding for Southwest, and I always wonder if they’ve boarded a legacy carrier lately. Everyone mills around the gate before boarding even starts, regardless of boarding group (and half the time I think the gate agents don’t enforce the groups), and jockeys for position. With Southwest, they make you line up in the correct order and IMHO it’s a more efficient process.

          I will say that the big drawback is if you have a connecting flight; I only fly Southwest on non-stops for that reason.

          1. Kudos to the JFK Jet Blue gate agents who actually did enforce boarding rows. I was quite surprised when I saw them politely yet firmly do this for people trying to sneak aboard earlier. 🙂 🙂

  5. If the flight I picked isn’t going at all, the airline’s schedule needs to be totally changed then by all means move me but if the flight I picked is still going then I should be allowed to choose if I want to be moved or not. 

    Seats aren’t such a big deal to me as I usually fly alone and when I do fly with others I don’t have this need to sit with them the entire flight. I do feel for families who are switched around, parents often need help keeps kids quiet and happy and that benefits ALL passengers. 

  6. How is it that Southwest rarely cancels and moves flights around (barring weather, etc) but I hear constant and multiple changes on most of the other major airlines?

    The double standard of the airlines changing schedules, planes, and people around as much as they like and the customer having little to no recourse OR the ability to do the same is blatantly unfair.

    After years of only flying Southwest, I will be traveling to Medford, OR (ironically) in a few weeks on United w/ my daughter.  I have chosen our seats carefully and dutifully check the flights at least once a week to make sure they haven’t changed anything. Booking 4mo, they have changed one of the four legs once (moved the departure time) so far.

    I’m hoping for a positive experience.

    1. The main reasons Southwest appears to not have the problem is they basically fly one type of plane and they don’t reserve seats on any of their flights.  Having a single type of plane means when swaps do occur it is not noticeable to the passenger since one 737-700 looks like nearly every other 737-700.  Southwest also seems to have a more relaxed schedule and enough flights through the day so when changes happen it isn’t the 8 hour bump.  

      Airlines like UA and Delta fly nearly every type of plane ever built by every manufacturer so when they have to swap they might go from a 757 to an Airbus 320.  While those planes might seat a similar number of people, the internal seat layout (row numbering etc.) can be considerably different meaning the original seats might be in a different (i.e. higher cost) section.  And each of those planes requires different training for the pilots and the crew as each have different controls.  You don’t want the pilot searching for the right button because it is different on this plane than the one he would normally fly.

      1. “Southwest also seems to have a more relaxed schedule and enough flights through the day so when changes happen it isn’t the 8 hour bump.”

        No, it’s a ten hour bump, thereby turning a three hour trip into a thirteen hour trip.  Southwest isn’t the angel they’d have us believe they are.

        1. no idea what you’re talking about Nancy. 10 hour bumps when it’s not weather/ATC?  methinks you’re catching that hyperbole that’s been going around…

          1. Since southwest doesn’t overbook flights, this can happen. I think that you’re catching this hyperbole that Southwest is the best airline for whatever reason… certainly not because the are cheaper

          2. sorry, SWA most certainly DOES overbook flights.  Roomie works there, at the ticket counter and gate.

    2.  I, too, will be flying to MFR in a few weeks.  When I originally booked my flight with UAL, I was going from ORD via SFO.  That got changed to ORD via DEN and I got bumped out of my Economy Plus seat assignments.  Had to call and get that changed directly with a customer service agent.  I booked my trip back in March, but now as it gets closer, I check UAL’s site daily.

  7. I always check my reservations religiously for schedule changes.  Sometimes it happens, and sometimes I even lose my seat assignment.  I always call the airline immediately to confirm, and them go back on-line and pick my seat again.  Sometimes my wife and I have been separated and can’t find seats together anymore, but most of the time, we are able to trade with other passengers. 
    I still find it amazing, that I can get from Denver to New York, in less than 4 hours.  If there is a 2 hour delay, 5 hour delay, over night, yes, it is inconvenient, but still, traveling over 1,500 miles in 4 hours, for less than the cost of driving?  That is amazing!  I would rather spend 3+ hours on the tarmac and deal with an occasional change than spend 20+ hours in my car.
    I really do prefer assigned seating.  I get my chosen seat (aisle) the majority of the time, and I don’t have to deal with all of the fighting for seats that I have on SouthWest.  In fact, I try to avoid SouthWest for this very reason.  I would rather pick my seat, and get it 95%

  8. There’s a missing option in this poll question. I think it would be perfectly reasonable for airlines to switch flights and seats on the same day – so long as passengers have the same right. Airlines, if you quit whacking our knuckles with those exorbitant change fees, we’ll gladly let you make “equipment changes”.

    1. Agreed. I find that these polls are often misleading. Perhaps deliberately, so that the only ‘reasonable’ option is agreeing with Chris’s opinion…

  9. Seat assignments are not guaranteed. I accept that fact.

    However, there are specific times when 2 or more passengers need to be seated together (ie minor children traveling with a parent, passenger with needs). It is unconscionable that an airline would intentionally separate a young child from a parent. In my opinion, the problem arises because these equipment changes are done automatically by a computer, thus the illogical reassignment of seats with a flight change. Most of the times, a competent gate agent will be able to “reassign” seats, but even this isn’t guaranteed.

    All bets are off once the airline starts charging to “premium” seating. If I am paying a surcharge for a “premium” seat, then the airline better honor my request.

    @9403e25da4b7599a4ff7d3b6e8af4a97:disqus There is an airline that already offers first-come, first-served seating, its called Southwest Airlines. They have a nifty solution for accommodating disabled passengers and passengers with children. They allow them to pre-board but block out the exit row. Even so, Southwest’s boarding process isn’t 100% problem free.

    @facebook-1105351498:disqus When airlines change schedules, they DO contact passengers (that is, if you leave them a valid contact information). Most of the times, the changes are minor (ie flight numbers, change in departure or arrival time by less than 15 minutes). If the change is major (ie > 4 hours, or different day), the airline usually requests that you contact customer service.

    While these cases seem ridiculous, personally I would rather the airline guarantee me a seat on a different flight, even if my seat assignment was changed. With today’s tight schedules, not grabbing that first available seat may mean that you can’t find an alternative flight at all!

    1. Southwest is actually my airline of choice (partially for this reason). My bad for not noting in my initial post that they already do the very thing I advocated and thanks for correcting that!

    2. Absherlock : Southwest “pre-boarding” for family is only possible after some of their customers (A group) have boarded : when you are travelling with babies and have to install a car seat, it is a true nightmare as you are holding the aisle. 
      You are far better treated on Southwest if you are allergic to peanuts (as that warrants you an earlier boarding) than if you are traveling with children and infants !…

      1. And that’s why I suggested that “linked” minor/adult tickets be one of the exceptions to the “no reservation” policy. I didn’t mean to suggest Southwest’s policy was perfect, just preferable (in my eyes).

      2. oh boo-hoo, a whopping 45-60 people have boarded before you and your precious babies, out of 137 seats.  that’s not even nearly half. and considering that you MUST place that carseat in the window seat, how exactly are you holding up the aisle?  don’t you hear the FAs saying over and over again, “Step out of the aisle” and into your row?
        it’s really not that hard.

  10. The question posed is confusing.  “Passengers think the game of musical chairs has gone too far when an airline doesn’t bother telling passengers about the change until they get to the airport….”  That didn’t happen in the first story.  

    Two different stories, though – and two different situations here.  For the guy whose seating assignment was changed and unable to sit with his wife and child – these things happen.  If the equipment swap/schedule change happened a “few months” from departure, as the article states, then there is still time over those few months to find adequate seating together – right up until the flight leaves.  I have seen airline personnel ask passengers to accommodate families flying together – and have seen passengers board aircraft and ask folks to swap seats.  It happens all the time.  Compensation because you didn’t get your seat selection?  No.

    I have no idea what happened in the second story that would allow an airline to simply boot a passenger off of one scheduled flight, for one that departs later, and still operate the originally scheduled flight – with seats still remaining.  If it was an equipment swap, then, yes, a move to a smaller plane would necessitate moving some customers to a different flight.  However, I would think that if seats opened up on the original flight, airlines reservation systems are sophisticated enough to allow an agent to see that the passenger was booked on the first flight and allow them to switch.  There just sounds like there is something missing from the second story.

    Even still, the second passenger was told about his flight change two months before his scheduled departure.  I don’t understand why the question involves airlines not informing passengers until they got to the airport on day of departure.  It doesn’t sound like that happened at all in either of these stories.

    1. @facebook-503099314:disqus Supposed there are 2 flights departing, one at 6:00AM and one at 9:00AM. When booking, the 6:00AM flight segment is only $109, but the 9:00AM segment is $218. If you paid extra for the 9:00AM segment and now the airline decides to cancel that flight segment and put you on the 6:00AM flight, wouldn’t you be upset? That is regardless of when they notified you. I’m not referring to a 5 or 15 minute time adjustment that is common, I’m talking about SIGNIFICANT changes. 
      I LOVE @a20d20dcb6b6ff5af487177d8d0f37b4:disqus ‘s suggestion that if the airline cancels your flight, you should be able to CHOOSE the replacement flight, not have the airline dictate when your replacement flight is. To give the airlines some credit, a reasonable CSR is usually able to find you a different replacement flight. Before anyone says that’s crazy, there are many times when I choose the time of departure over price, and this privilege sometimes costs a mint. If I were bumped to a different time and I paid a higher fare, I too would be miffed. 

      1. When Delta canceled a flight for me they let me choose a replacement flight within 24 hours either way for free, and they even let me change the destination (PSA to FLR) also for free, simply by calling.
        Not sure what airline doesn’t do this when there aren’t any flights +/- a few hours…

  11. I also have an issue with booked flights being cancelled and being rebooked on other flights without notification.  I often book nonstop flights many months in advance  – usually at a higher cost than flights with 1 or 2 stops.  In just the last month, 4 of my future flights have been changed and are no longer nonstop (adding several inconveneient hours to travel time in each instance) and 3 of these occured without any notification (Continental did at least let me know by email. )   

    1. I agree– I carefully book the flights that accomodate my health as best as I can, and I have little tolerance for changes, knowing I’D face stiff penalities if I changed anything.  Last month I flew from Seattle to Tampa, with a layover in Denver. My return flight was the same, with a layover in Denver.  United cancelled the flight evening before I was to leave, and notified me that they had rescheduled my trip from Tampa to Newark to Chicago to Denver to San Francisco to Seattle— a 21 hour trip!! Took almost 4 hours on the phone, trying to explain why that was not acceptable—and they finally “let” me book the original return flight a day later. It was not convieint, and there was no recompense, but at least I could still move when I finally reached Seattle. Airlines have too much power–and it’s all one way.

  12. My family had four assigned seats on a flight that had been booked nearly a year in advance (returning to Newark from Belize). I checked the flight status and seat assignments periodically, and discovered a week or two before our trip that my son’s seat assignment had disappeared. It took literally hours on the phone with Continental to resolve this. First they said the flight was overbooked and we should just show up at the airport and hope for the best. Then they said that my son (then 14 years old) would have to fly on his own to Houston and change planes. Finally they came up with a seat assignment (in a different part of the plane, but that was okay). I had to speak to three or four different people to solve this problem, and it was incredibly stressful and annoying. I don’t know why the airlines are allowed to get away with this kind of thing. I would love to see overbooking made illegal.

  13. Airline schedules change .. it happens.
    What I don’t agree with is what appeared to happen in one of the stories above where the airline moved a lower fare ticket to a less appealing flight. That isn’t a true schedule change it is revenue enhancement.

    I also think that if the airline does change their schedule you should be allowed to pick any routing you wish on that day (or the day prior if flights aren’t available to get you to your destination by the original arrival time). I also think that if the airline changes their schedule for your departure day again you should have the right to change to a new flight that departs within a hour of your original routingn(ie the case where they cancel a flight and then reinstate it).

    Do I think the airline would ever do it? Nope. Execution is a nightmare but its nice to hope.

    1. If an airline e-mails you with a schedule change and you are not happy with the alternate flights, you do not have to accept the change as is. At that point, you can call, have them look at other available options, and you can make a change at no additional charge.

  14. I have had two occasions when the schedule changes have benefitted me.  Once to Hawaii – they changed the schedule instead of agreeing to the change I called and was able to actually eliminate a connection for my daughter.  They made changes that not only could I not get for our price when booking but they would have charged me to change.  On another flight to Stockholm booked way ahead – they made a change- I called instead of automatically accepting the change and was able to make a better connection in Frankfurt and get to Sweden four hours earlier.  The secret is to keep checking your itinerary and don’t automatically accept the changes – make them do the work for you. I leave for that Stockholm trip tomorrow – volcanic ash permitting.

  15. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as easy as Yes or No.  Airlines need flexibility to make minor adjustments to departure/arrival times and seating assignment but should not be allowed to place you on different flights without checking with you first.

    If you book a flight a year in advance, the schedule will probably change and should be expected.  I booked an international flight last February on CO and parts have changed 4 times.  But I am still getting between point A and B within an hour of my originally selected time in my originally selected seats.  In this case, I don’t expect anything from the airline except prompt notification that the flights have moved around a bit.  And since I booked my tickets directly with the airline online, I have access to change seats as often as I want free of charge up to check in time.

    However, if I had been moved to different flights on different equipment that would cause me to be several hours late arriving or would have moved me to a different cabin class, then I would expect something more than an email from the airline.  Maybe allowing me to pick different flights than the ones they reassign me to without any change fees would be nice.  I need to be where I’m going as close as possible to the time I selected because I have things to do meetings to attend and so on at my destination and more than 8 hours late is not acceptable.  

    Something that would be nice for the airlines to do is allow you to select an option when buying tickets that state all of the tickets require seating together so if one gets moved all get moved together.

  16. I think there should be a window – perhaps + or – one hour – where the airlines can move you without compensation, but if it’s any longer than that they should have to compensate the passengers in some way.

    I also think the airlines owe the passengers more of an explanation for any move when the flight involved is NOT cancelled, as happened in Mr. Eckel’s case.

    And – I agree with deemery below that you should be able to connect reservations. My wife and I are taking a trip to LA later this summer where we will be on different outbound itineraries but on the same return itinerary and you can bet that I check frequently to make sure we are still together.

  17. We fly United and Frontier, and they’re generally pretty good about notifying us of changes. Sometimes they seem absurd, such as a few minutes in itinerary difference; sometimes it’s not, such as losing 6 hours of our vacation because the flight was outright canceled.

    Just recently, we were notified of a change in our upcoming flight (our one and only this year; thank you, TSA!) and we had to approve it due to a 5 minute change in itinerary. But it turns out they also changed planes and we were now given completely different seats, which we had to get changed. THAT is what they should have been notifying us about. At least we knew a head of time, rather than at the gate, which we’ve also had happen.

    But then, my wife checks on her own anyways, since it’s hard to trust the airlines with anything these days.

    The story about Delta canceling a flight only to add it back and then bending people over to change back to that flight? Well, nothing surprises me any more. Profit at the expense of all else.

  18. I am a business travel manager and I primarily fly Delta for my own travel. I am notified of schedule changes by e-mail. At that point, if I am not happy with the change, I call Delta to see if there’s another option, and I can change my itinerary at that point with no additional charge, because the airline initiated the change. Sometimes my seat assignments are changed as well, because the equipment changes. I just go to the website or call to select a different seat, if I’m not happy with the reassigned seat. This is the usual routine for my travel clients as well, regardless of which airline they fly. They’re nearly always notified in advance. But a good rule of thumb is to check your reservations once a week, because it is possible that a change might slip by without an e-mail notification.

  19. Maybe there are different rules in the US than in Europe? I was recently booked to fly Nice-Bristol on Easyjet, and they sent me an email saying they had moved the flight time, but giving me the option to rebook. (I think they were trying to discontinue the route.) The flight now arrived too late for me to make a train connection, and instead I flew into Gatwick, which would have cost more than my original flight.

    I understand that the airlines may need to make changes, but they should certainly notify the passengers! And preferably take care with the wording – I once got an email from AirOne saying on the first page that my flight had been canceled. On the second page I discovered it still existed but left half an hour later. I would certainly be upset if I only found out about a change when I arrived at the airport, but I do check ahead of time.

  20. It’s funny. I live in Brazil, and consumer laws here tend to be pro-consumer, not pro-company. Any company that sells a ticket to/from Brazil needs to abide by those laws. Therefore, I many times receive a different treatment on a same flight as American consumers.

    I visited my folks in San Francisco for the hollidays and AA changed my intinerary quite a bit. I do not care much about seat assigments changing. Also, I usually agree with changing my seats if that helps families travel together.

    But they changed my original flight, that would only have 1 layover for 4 hours, a 15 hour flight, to a flight that would take a total of 24 hours! That’s insane. And, since I bought the tickets in Brazil, in the end they agreed on putting me on a UA flight to Miami, where I could get my original connection to Brasilia. The flight did turn out a bit longer – 17 hours, instead of 15 – but there wasn’t really anything else I could do. For that – and because I could actually sue them for those 2 hours back home – they granted me Bussiness seats on my international connection. Turned out pretty well, I think.

    So, I answered ‘No’ on the pool above, but that is only to the situation where airlines change your flight in a major way (hours). I really think seat assigments are a ‘plus’, not a order to the company. I bought A seat, not seat 24-A (just an example).

  21. I don’t have a problem with an airline changing equipment, flight times or whatever – but they then need to contact their customers, treat them like customers, and give them a choice to accept the new flights, obtain a refund or schedule to ANY flight on the same day between the same origin and destination points for no additional charge.  End of story.  

    Fair is fair and when companies treat the people who generate their revenue like self-loading brainless cargo they get what they deserve. 

    In this case-  simple – the OP WRITES Delta and tells them to put his parents back on their original flights that they are STILL operating.  If they refuse, you make a claim for denied boarding -and PRESS it all the way to small claims court.  Let Delta prove what it did – 

    Essentially, the parents were denied boarding.  They arrived later than 2 or 4 hours from their original flights- thats how I would have gone at it.  

  22. What??  The airlines don’t have computers to automatically handle such stuff??  And no programmers to teach the computers how to do it??

    I’m almost positive even ancient software like SABRE had a facility for linking PNRs such that they wouldn’t be separated.

    I’m beginning to think it would be a good idea for all the existing airlines to go bust so we could do it over.  We obviously didn’t get it right the first time.

  23. With regard to Andy Eckel’s problem, Delta should have switched him back at no additional charge since that was his original flight.  It’s unconscionable for them to change him, under the guise of a cancelled flight, and then ask him to pay them AGAIN when he finds out they did it for no other reason than they could.

    I also find myself wondering if people at the various airlines read this blog so they can figure out where to either fix things or further ruin our traveling lives.

  24. Don’t know about other airlines, but last week Delta changed my late-June flight from FLL to SNA (connect through MSP) to a much later flight.  BUT – they did e-mail me a schedule change.  And I was able to call and get a more suitable flight (actually, much more convenient than the original flight) connecting through ATL instead for no charge.

  25. Nowhere do I see an explanation for poor Andy Eckel’s misfortune. His parent’s flight was booked, then without any authorization, it was moved out to another flight that left 6 hours later.  Mr. Eckel finds out the original flight was still available and Delta want to charge him $1,400 to put his parents back on that flight. WHY did they move them in the first place?  How can Delta possible get away with this?  What’s the point of making a reservation in advance then?  I’m so glad I’m boycotting flying these days.  The whole experience from beginning to end is humiliating, dismal and distasteful.

  26. Weird.  I booked 3 tickets on Delta for my son and his family in January to go from Omaha to Seattle at the end of July and back a week later in early August.  I’ve gotten 3 separate e-mails from Delta advising me of changes to the itinerary.  All the changes have been minor – 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, both earlier and later, back and forth.  The seat assignments  have stayed intact from the initial booking through 3 changes.

    Perhaps my experience has been an exception?

    1. I have had the same experience.  On my last Delta flight, I got an email and couldn’t really even figure out what the change in the flight was.  Turned out, it was less than 5 minutes– at 12:30 am.  I have always been notified of flight changes.  If the change is greater than a certain number of hours, Delta even has an option to change your flights to more acceptable choices right on the website.

      As far as the second issue with Mr. Eckel’s parents, that is completely unacceptable.  If there were seats available, his parents should have gotten those seats with no change fees at all.

      Airlines have an obligation to communicate schedule changes to their customers but I don’t necessarily believe compensation is in order. 

  27. Would you rather seat together with your friend on a flight or have the flight cancelled if the airline cannot provide the same equipment as it was originally scheduled almost a year in advance?

    In my experience both United and Delta always took care of me when equipment/schedule change occured. Sometimes you’ll need to do some homework to find an alternative flight you want before contacting an airline. Sometimes you need to call more than one time to find the person who will help you.

  28. Chris,

    You meant Washington DC, right? I’m from the actual state of Washington and boy is it irritating when you tell someone where you are from and they assume you mean DC 🙂

  29. Also, my experience with Delta is that they will do an automated phone call to you that includes your new flight information. They have done this for me several times. Of course they have always gotten me there late after delay, but that’s not part of this story… 

  30. Airlines have valid reasons for changing schedules (don’t we all). But the notion that we passengers deserve compensation when such changes occur seems a bit much. However, in this case the airline switched the passengers to a later flight although the company did send a plane out (though I presume it was configured for fewer passengers) on that scheduled route. Maybe the lesson is that the customer should have checked with the airline when he was told there had been a change. He should have asked whether the flight had been cancelled or revised, and if revised, he then should have insisted on retaining seats on the revised flight.

  31. I book flights 330 days ahead for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I discovered years ago that my flights are always changed between when they are booked and when I fly, so I check the status of my reservation periodically. When the time is changed significantly, I look at what flights are available for that day before I accept the change. I have in the past been changed to a different flight (vs the time of my flight changing). I called Continental when this happened and was told when we book a ticket we book a ticket for the day, not a specific time, and they have the right to change our reservation to a different flight. At the same time, they did agree to put me back on the flight I originally reserved. Keep in mind, though, this was before the airlines got fee happy, so they might not be willing to do this anymore. But when we specifically book a time of day, what gives the airline to change us to a different flight?

  32. I book flights 330 days ahead for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I discovered years ago that my flights are always changed between when they are booked and when I fly, so I check the status of my reservation periodically. When the time is changed significantly, I look at what flights are available for that day before I accept the change. I have in the past been changed to a different flight (vs the time of my flight changing). I called Continental when this happened and was told when we book a ticket we book a ticket for the day, not a specific time, and they have the right to change our reservation to a different flight. At the same time, they did agree to put me back on the flight I originally reserved. Keep in mind, though, this was before the airlines got fee happy, so they might not be willing to do this anymore. But when we specifically book a time of day, what gives the airline to change us to a different flight?

  33. I have no problem with rescheduling flights for the reasons Michael Miller provided in the article.  However, assuming Andy Eckel accurate described his situation, that’s not what happened to his parents.  They were simply moved to another flight, and their original flight went along without them. I do have a problem with that.  (Indeed, I think it may be illegal, because there are specific regulations about what an airline has to do to bump a passenger.)

  34. as long as you are informed of the changes, and provided that you the passenger give the airline a fair way of contacting you, then i don’t believe ANY compensation is owed for changing seat assignments, departure/arrival times, or equipment changes.  period.

    1.  What about when I paid more for a direct flight at the time of booking and I get forced onto a non-direct that I could have paid a lot less for when I purchased my ticket?

    2. You think they can change their end of the bargain anytime they want without recourse?  Shouldn’t the customer also have that ability then? 

      And what if you are not notified?  How many ways of notification are enough?  My work email is often full what if they sent 1 email and it happened on a day I was in “email jail” as we call it here?  Usually I don’t even KNOW I’m in email jail until someone calls to ask why I haven’t replied to something.  Or what if I’m on vacation and I’m not checking emails all the time (for example, I’m out in the Serengeti on safari, no internet cafes out there!)?  Is there just saying, “we sent you an email” enough? 

      I think they should have to notify you AND you should have to agree to the change AND it should be done within say 2 weeks prior to the flight taking off. 

      1. I’ve always been able to call and ask for a routing (that wasn’t already full) for no charge when my flights were changed by more than 4 or so hours. You just have to be persistent and my guess is that OP was lazy not to do so…
        Also, how do you expect them to contact you? Carrier pigeon? Email is pretty much the only way since you don’t give them any other way to reach you (the credit card billing address may not be your home address, especially when buying tickets for someone else)

  35. For anyone who is advocating a cracking down on airline schedule changes, keep in mind that there would be a serious consequence that would also affect all travelers.

    If the airlines were put in a position where they were less able to swap equipment or change flights, then they might be less likely to offer a schedule of fares for 330 days prior to travel.  If you ask most Southwest fliers, they will probably tell you that is one of their biggest peeves with their own airline.  Southwest only lets you book (at most) about 200 days from the date of your travel.  Coincidentally, I think they JUST opened their schedule for bookings through the new year yesterday.  So, if you were looking to book Christmas or Thanksgiving travel for later this year, you couldn’t do it until yesterday on Southwest.  If more airlines adopted that model because they feared that an equipment swap or schedule change would cost them money, the average traveler would lose – not win.

    1.  I would much rather wait until 200 days out and be confident that the flight that I book has a very small chance of changing, than book 300+ days out and hope that the scheduled flight won’t change by hours, multiple times, and mess up my plans!

      1. I’m the same.  Maybe it’s because I’m not booking travel for an entire family but I don’t really understand why people book travel nearly a year ahead.  Sure for travel around Christmas or other holidays I book early (usually July/ Aug for Christmas travel) but I don’t see the reasons why people book so early for other times of the year. 

      2. Well, you could just not buy tickets until 200 days out or even fewer, as airlines are much more likely to change their schedules months rather than weeks in advance. You can’t have it both ways.

        1.  FWIW, I try to avoid airlines other than Southwest because I want to be confident that the flights (including times) I choose are the ones I end up flying on. My recent United purchase (flying in a few weeks) was completed just shy of 3 months before flying. Since then it has already changed once (minor time change, but still a change).

          And I don’t want it both ways…I don’t see it as the average traveler “losing” if airlines reduced their booking window times to ensure that the schedule is accurate, in fact I see it as a win for both sides.

          1. I agree with you – you can’t have both booking 330 (or whatever) days in advance _and_ no schedule changes.
            Then again, if airlines only sold tickets 3 months in advance people would be complaining too…

  36. I cant vote because of the choices…
    I do believe airlines can reschedule your flights due to periodic schedule changes airlines make.  BUT those changes arent at the last minute and are usually a coupld months in advance.  Sometimes these could be slight time changes like a plane will leave 30 minutes late…other times these changes could be 6 hrs later or earlier.
    If the do change your schedule in my view they should accomodate you by being able to rebook you free of any charges to something that accomdates your travel plans.

    I have had this happen to me in the past a few times with delta/Northwest…

    One time me and my sister were meeting up and traveling on the same flight together.  They did a schedule change and it ended up my sister had a 17 minute layover in Atlanta.  I called corporate to get it fixed.

    I was traveling to my brothers for a weekend and I had something to do their Monday morning before my return flight and I was notified 2 months earlier that they changed my flight to one that involved 2 layovers and extensively long travel time..and the departure time conflicted with the primary reason for my trip that Monday morning meeting.  I had to call them and get it fixed.

    One thing I ran into during the delta/Northwest merger was for some reason corporate staff didnt have access to northwest flights but the website did.  Some of my alternate recommendations involved using northwest flight routes but corporate didnt have them.

    As for the seating together…on reservations you should have the ability to say you are linked to other passangers.  It happened to me before.  I was geting togethger for a guys weekend and meeting the guys on the same connection on northwet in detroit where we would sit together.  That was the plan for the return trip.  They changed planes which shuffled the deck.  One problem was my booking was through a continental codeshare. so I technically was a continental customer on northwest.

    1. As for the compensation issues….if they have a system where you can link reservations so they know who are together and who isnt and they five you enough notification and freedom to change your flight then they are fre to change schedule.

      If they have this info and they dont notify you or do this at the last second and the change isnt due to last minute change of planes due to mechanical delays then they owe you some compensation. 

  37. I cant vote because of the choices…
    I do believe airlines can reschedule your flights due to periodic schedule changes airlines make.  BUT those changes arent at the last minute and are usually a coupld months in advance.  Sometimes these could be slight time changes like a plane will leave 30 minutes late…other times these changes could be 6 hrs later or earlier.
    If the do change your schedule in my view they should accomodate you by being able to rebook you free of any charges to something that accomdates your travel plans.

  38. I have seen a few people post on here….If one person books 4 tickets the airline knows you are together so they will try to keep you together on a new flight. 

    The problems occur if you have say a group of friends who paid for their ticket seperatly or a few couples traveling together or a damily reunion of sorts for travel where parent paid for their seats separately from their children  (and their SO and children) and chose there seats so that they were next to each other were the ones that got screwed by the rebooking.  When an airline changes aircraft they need to shuffle the seating deck and they dont know who is together and who isnt if you booked the flights and paid for the flights separately you are goin g to get separated.  If you booked the entire party by one persons person then your reservations are linked so they will make every effort to keep you together and if they cant then the airline may talk to you and even compensate you in some way if you are separated (like moving some of the party to FC.

    1. When my family travels with me when I travel on business, there are two seperate PNRs.  I call US Airways to put my PNR on their record so that the airline knows that we are traveling together.

    2. Mosty schedule changes are done by computer, no human interaction.  We get misconnects all the time. When that happens, you get to be placed on any flight of your choice as long as the flight isn’t sold out in your type of cabin.  Your example of a family booked in one PNR being reaccommodated together gets thrown out the window daily.

      You can count on schedule changes when we turn our clocks forward or back.  I have had schedule changes three days in a row for one flight.  Everything gets messed up if an aircraft change takes place the day of departure.  If you book a little less than year in advance, all you are doing is locking up your money and usually paying more for that ticket.  Just because you think something should be, doesn’t mean that is the way it goes. 

      Even with a phone number, an email in the PNR, you should check your reservation weekly.  The last week before your trip, check it daily if possible.  Nothing is perfect and when moving millions of people a year, someone is bound to not get notified. 

      Some carriers are better than others in reaccommoding your seats when your had one assigned and then it disappears.  One carrier will open up inventory available to only their best flyers, another tells you, too bad, all they guarantee is a seat, not a specific seat. 

    3. Not true – I have booked more than once for myself and my two kiddos and more than once the airline has tried after the fact, after they have confirmed my purchase of tickets in seats together – to separate me from one or both of my kids – due to an equipment change or a priority elite bump…

  39. Booking that far in advance almost always guarantees a schedule change. Most of them I’ve been subject to have been no big deal, normally a half hour or so.  Normally I get a phone call or email, but I also check in periodically for changes.

    Perhaps Delta tried to contact him by email and it went to the spam folder.  Mine automatically deletes every few days – it would be easy to miss.  It’s always a good idea no matter who you book through to add their email address as a “safe sender” and check your account preferences for how you would like to be contacted.

    Barring all that though, they should have switched his parents to their original flight.  Perhaps a copy of the original itinerary bounced up the chain would have helped?

  40. Pure insanity.

    My relatives and I are in the process of putting a trip together for my mom to visit family in Samoa.  She would be flying alone out of Atlanta, and most likely would have to change planes in at least two locations stateside before changing once again in Honolulu and bound for Pago Pago/Tafuna.  The fares alone have had me in hives, almost… but the very idea that the airlines have free run of changing plans without some kind of notice has me very, very worried. 

    Between that, a possible TSA checkpoint assault, and all the other craptacular issues that the airline industry seems to be bringing onto themselves… it seriously has me wanting to tell my relatives to wait until I can afford to accompany her.

    And so I leave this post with this thought:  if I can think this way – what isn’t to say that many more people have the same thought?  Lots of $$$ in the air, there…

  41. I’ve learned not to purchase in-flight entertainment packages ahead of time (when booking your tickets).  I’ve had it happen where I booked my ticket, selected my seat, and bought the TV/Movie package.  When I got on the plane, the flight attendant asked me to move my seat (me being a single traveler) to accomodate someone who needed to sit with a child.  Not a problem except that my entertainment package stayed with the seat and not me.  I essentially paid $15 for some stranger to watch movies in my seat.  If I try to argue the point, I’m the jerk for not trading my seat for a kid.  It’s also hard to get that fee refunded since there is no proof I didn’t sit in my assigned seat.

  42. I see a lot of really bad information on this. 1) you cannot book any airline in the world 1 year in advance; the earliest is 330 days from the return date (maybe). 2) If they had used an ASTA real live travel agent, we would have know about the schedule change the moment that it happened and would have been all over it. 3) I have worked 1000’s of nasty schedule changes adn in 40+ years had to refund less than a dozen. The travel agent desks don’t care as much about the class of service, they care about resolving the issue and pleasing me. 4) If you buy the cheapest seats, I can bump you right out of them as I have gold, chairman, top dog status on 3 airlines with a dozen more code share partners, so I can bump you any time. Airlines like me more, because I spend more. Seats are a service, not a priority.

  43. Made reservations for myself and 6 yo 6 months in advance.  3 changes were made to itinerary before we left.  Getting there was fine, getting back was a nightmare.  Took over 40 hours to get from NY-PHX.  Our tickets did not match up with existing flights- go to booking, go to this gate, gate change, go to another gate, no room, back to booking—– over and over in 3 airports.  Having to go through security so many times to get to booking and back to gates tripped security and we became targeted for enhanced searches.  I was exhausted, my 6yo was just passing out on me.  There was no down time throughout these 40 hours, it was struggling with gate agents, booking,  phone calls to airline service, running from gate to booking to gate the whole time.  Only rest was when we got on an aircraft inching closer to home.  This was not a holiday period and we showed up plenty early, just the airlines regular way of doing business, apparently.  I don’t know how anyone could defend this fiasco.  The travel industry should be forced to make all its rules, limits, fees and fines reciprocal for the customer too.  That would put a grinding halt to many of their abuses.

  44. The airline may not change you out of your originally booked flight while that flight still exists, but it gets sticky if the original flight is cancelled and then at a later date, is reinstated.

    One gamble you can do with Delta is, if you see your flight cancelled and your booking moved to another flight, is to not call them right away. Later, if (that’s a big if) you see a better flight appear (which may include the same flight re-appearing), then make your first call regarding their rebooking and ask to be moved to that flight.

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