Should this Delta Air Lines flight change lead to a refund?

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By Christopher Elliott

When Delta Air Lines makes a change to Terry Kulka’s flight, she wants a refund. But the airline will only offer a credit. Can it do that?


I had a confirmed round trip flight from San Francisco to New York on Delta Air Lines, departing at 8:30 a.m. A couple of days ago, I received a notice that Delta Air Lines made a change to the flight departure time to 7 in the morning.

Seven in the morning? That’s ridiculous!

I live in Oakland, and my transportation to San Francisco is via BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). BART trains do not begin service until 6 a.m. on the weekends, making it impossible for me to get to the airport in time to make this flight.

The next available flight from San Francisco to New York via Delta is not until after 11 a.m. arriving in New York at 8:30 p.m., which is useless to me as I need to arrive in New York earlier than this 8:30 p.m. arrival time.

I needed a nonstop flight because of COVID concerns. The cost of any alternatives — taxi or staying at an airport hotel the night before — is cost-prohibitive for me. I am a senior and the sole caretaker for my partner, who would be staying at home here in Oakland, has Parkinson’s, so I run on a pretty tight schedule. The original departure time was perfect for my needs. I never expected Delta Air Lines to change my flight so significantly.

I understand that I purchased a “nonrefundable” ticket.  However, I filed a claim with Delta asking for my money back – in any other business, this would be called “bait and switch.” Not surprisingly, they denied my request and are offering me an e-credit. With my partner’s progressive disease, my traveling days are ending, and I have no use for any credit on Delta. I want my money refunded.

Would you please advise me as to what recourse I may have in this situation? Can Delta Air Lines change my flight like this and refuse to give me a refund? Help! — Terry Kulka, Oakland, Calif.

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I’m sorry to hear about your personal circumstances. Airlines should be sensitive to the needs of their customers. After all, we taxpayers were sensitive to their needs during the pandemic, lavishing them with more than $60 billion in federal aid. How about a little reciprocity?

But your situation is different. Delta Air Lines made a change to your departure time by 1 ½ hours.

The Department of Transportation (DOT), which regulates U.S. air carriers, says you are entitled to a refund if there’s a “significant” schedule change.

But there’s a catch. DOT doesn’t define what constitutes a “significant” change. (Related: Did Delta do enough for this delayed passenger?)

“Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on many factors – including the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances,” it notes. “DOT determines whether you are entitled to a refund following a significant delay on a case-by-case basis.”

The good news: You don’t have to accept the change that Delta Air Lines made to your flight

In other words, Delta probably owed you a refund for your changed flight, especially in light of BART’s weekend schedule. It should have offered you a choice of an e-credit or a full refund. It didn’t. (Here’s how to survive a long flight in economy class and avoid jet lag.)

I recommended that you send a brief, polite appeal to Delta Air Lines. We publish the names, numbers, and email addresses of Delta’s customer service executives in our database. You could have also sent a complaint to the Department of Transportation, but I would only recommend doing that if Delta had continued to refuse your refund request. (Related: Did Delta do enough for this delayed passenger?)

It didn’t. After you sent Delta’s executives a note, they offered to refund your airfare. I wish you all the best and hope you’ll be able to make the trip to New York soon.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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