Reader question: United called to notify me of a schedule change for a trip this Summer. It's not a significant change, but requires me to catch an earlier flight. Can they do this?
Yes they can. But you don't always have to accept their specific change.
It sounds like you planned ahead and booked a Summer trip well in advance. Good for you! Hopefully you managed to get a convenient flight at a good price.
Unfortunately, a downside to booking far in advance is the reservation can be changed, sometimes more than once, by the airline.
Here's why: Based on historical data, airlines generally set flight schedules up well in advance. But sometimes unexpected events occur - much like in our personal lives, that cause us to drift away from a set schedule. For the airlines, that was the high cost of fuel, a downturn in the economy, and utilizing much of their remaining cash reserves to stay in business. In response to these events, airlines quickly trimmed capacity throughout the United States, selectively eliminating certain flights, and flying to fewer destinations. This practice is still going on into 2009 as airlines struggle to turn a profit.
One outcome of airline cutbacks is customers holding future reservations, such as yourself, are being consolidated onto other flights. Where an airline may have previously operated six daily flights between San Francisco and Las Vegas, then decide to cut one of those flights, everyone on that cut flight to be rebooked on one of the five remaining.
Routes that have high frequency, such as San Francisco to Los Angeles, mean your departure time may change by only an hour. But if you are flying San Francisco to Ontario, where only a few flights per day operate on this route, a reduction in one flight means a schedule change to your itinerary could become quite inconvenient for you. On the plus side, airlines are pretty good about notifying affected passengers at least several weeks in advance.
What to do when your flight is eliminated and/or the schedule is changed:
More often than not, the airline will rebook you on a new flight. If you are inconvenienced by the new itinerary call the airline and negotiate something that works for you. If they rebook you on an earlier flight but the later one is more convenient, ask for it. Depending on how significant the schedule change is, you can ask for a different routing (ie: connecting through different cities), travel on a different day, or a complete refund. A rule of thumb is any schedule change more than 90 minutes from your original reservation and the airlines are willing to consider any creative changes you propose. Is it a guarantee they will make the change? No. If you have elite status will it help? Yes. Will it depend on which airline agent you speak with? Maybe.
It all starts with you. If you come across a schedule change you are not particularly fond of, draft up some proposals of how you think the airline can make it right. Then give them a call, politely explaining how the schedule change negatively impacts you, and discuss some alternatives you have come up with.