Canceled and delayed flights can be problematic but another thing that travelers sometimes have to contend with is a schedule change.
This is whenever an airline decides that it needs to make some type of change to your flight like pushing back the departure time or adding a connection.
In these situations, you may be wondering if you could be entitled to a refund or some other type of compensation.
Below, we will dive deep into the schedule change policies for different airlines and give you a sense of when you might be able to recover your money back due to the inconvenience these changes effect.
Can airlines change your flight?
Yes, airlines can change your scheduled flight at pretty much any time. When this happens, you may be entitled to a free change or refund depending on the severity of the disruption.
For example, if the schedule change results in a departure several hours different from your original departure or requires you to add connecting flights, you could be entitled to a refund.
You will want to check the terms of the airline you’re flying with to see if you can get compensation.
We have provided a summary of the policies of various airlines as of January 2023 below as well as some tips and insight into how these refunds are typically given.
So be sure to keep reading below to find out all the details you need to know!
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Contract of carriage terms
Airlines make it clear in their contracts of carriage that they can make changes to your flights, even without notice.
This includes allowing them to change departure times, aircraft type, carriers, and connecting airports.
Let’s take a look at some of the terms from major airlines and you’ll see how clear this is:
“Flight schedules are subject to change without notice, and the times shown on Alaska’s published schedules, Tickets, timetable and advertising are not guaranteed and form no part of this Contract of Carriage.”
“Spirit may, without notice, substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, and may alter or omit stopping places shown on the reservation. Schedules are subject to change without notice.”
“Times shown on tickets, timetables, published schedules or elsewhere, and aircraft type and similar details reflected on tickets or UA’s schedule are not guaranteed and form no part of this contract. UA may substitute alternate carriers or aircraft, delay or cancel flights, and alter or omit stopping places or connections shown on the ticket at any time.”
So it’s clear by the terms of the contract of carriage that airlines allow themselves to make various changes to your flight at pretty much any time.
But what can you do whenever they make a change?
Are you entitled to a refund or some other type of compensation?
The answer, of course, depends.
The steps to dealing with a schedule change
When an airline makes a change to your flight, you should receive some type of notification from the airline via email, text, or within the app to let you know that there has been a schedule change.
These anxiety-inducing messages don’t always arrive on time which is why it is good to periodically check on the status of your flight if you booked well out in advance.
Sometimes the schedule changes can be extremely insignificant — only a matter of a few minutes.
If the schedule change is insignificant, say under 60 minutes, you may be responsible for the difference in fare if you make a change (and a refund may not be an option).
But other times the changes could be much more substantial and you might need to consider switching to a different flight or even canceling.
Some airlines will make it easier for you to rebook by allowing you to instantly access your itinerary and choose a different flight.
Other times, you may need to call to sort things out, especially if there is not an easy flight to substitute.
In the situations where you are essentially forced to choose a different flight because of a substantial schedule change, you should not have to pay the fare difference.
For example, Spirit makes clear that you can make a change to an itinerary “without a charge and/or fare difference” when the itinerary was affected by an “eligible schedule change.”
You might also have a greater flexibility with choosing a different flight date, sometimes within several days before or after your original date of departure.
But ultimately, if you’re unable to find a satisfactory flight to replace the one you originally booked, you may be entitled to a full refund.
Related: The 24 Hour Airline Cancellation Rule Explained (w/Exceptions)
Factors to look at when pursuing a schedule change refund or free change
The DOT has established some guidelines for when you are entitled to a refund after a schedule change, although they are not particularly helpful.
They say a passenger can get a refund if the airline “made a significant schedule change and/or significantly delays a flight.”
However, they do not define what they mean by “significant delay.”
Instead, they go on to say that whether you are entitled to a refund depends on a lot of different factors including things like the “length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances.”
For the DOT, it’s determined on a case by case basis, although they are thinking about adding specific rules.
A lot of the factors that the DOT will consider are also factors that airlines spell out in their terms. Below are some of those key terms that could determine if you get a free change or refund.
Changed departure or arrival time
Usually the most important factor you want to know is the minimum time threshold that will trigger a free change or refund for a schedule change.
The thresholds are currently not uniform among the airlines.
One airline may allow you to request a refund after a schedule change of one hour while another may require a schedule change of several hours.
(Usually the time threshold stated in the terms will apply to both changes in departure time and arrival time.)
Some airlines leave things open and just say that a significant change will qualify you for a refund.
In that case, you may just have to plead your case because there is no specific cut off.
Change in cabin type
If your cabin fare changes as a result of schedule changes by the airline you could be issued a refund.
For example, if you were bumped from business class to economy, you may be able to request a full refund.
Or, if you wanted to still take that flight you should be able to get the price difference refunded.
The price difference will probably be based on the date of purchase and not on the date of the flight but you will want to verify that — these calculations can get messy.
You might be able to sometimes negotiate getting placed in a higher cabin when a schedule change occurs but that’s definitely something that won’t be guaranteed. YMMV.
If you are forced to add a connection to your itinerary or an extra stop, that’s often a significant disruption worthy of a refund or free change.
Change in aircraft
Sometimes you might be able to request a refund or free change if the new itinerary is on a different aircraft. This is particularly true if the aircraft is a lot different.
For example, if you were put on a much smaller or older aircraft with different seating configuration, that can be a big deal to a lot of travelers and airlines should be understanding of that.
Change in carrier
Related to the factor above, if you are changed to a different carrier, even a regional carrier for the airline, that’s another situation where you might be able to get a refund.
Change of origin or destination airport
Generally, if you are forced to depart or arrive at a different airport that will qualify you for a refund.
However, some airlines may make exceptions for airports that are located close to each other.
For example, if your airport is changed from SFO to OAK, an airline may consider them to be so close to each other that they will not issue a refund. Depending on your circumstances, you might still be able to fight that.
Airlines schedule change refund policies
Finding the schedule change refund policy for an airline is not always easy.
Sometimes it is found in the contract of carriage but other times it is found on a travel agent page or some other dedicated FAQ page.
So it’s not always easy to find the information you need.
One thing that I noticed about these policies when researching them is that they seem to change fairly frequently.
It’s probably due a lot to the fact that coronavirus forced a lot of airlines to reshuffle the way they do things and we are still feeling the ripples from that effect.
So use the information below as guidance but always verify with the airline with the current policy is!
Let me know if you spell anything outdated.
Per the terms of the contract of carriage, you may be able to get a refund with Alaska Airlines if a schedule change results in a change of departure time exceeding one hour.
You can also seek a refund if a change in routing adds one or more stops to your original itinerary or results in a missed connection to any flight shown on the same reservation.
Allegiant’s contract of carriage states that you can request a refund on the unused portion of your fare if you experience a “significant” delay when Allegiant fails to operate any flight according to their published schedule.”
This is not particularly helpful but it is in line with the DOT guidelines.
American Airlines will provide you with a refund if your flight is changed more than four hours.
Also, if they make a schedule change of 90 minutes or more within 72 hours of your scheduled departure, you can also get a refund.
Other situations where you may be able to request a refund is when a nonstop flight is changed to a connecting flight or when the schedule change results in a change to the operating carrier, change of airport, or change of cabin.
According to Delta’s Liability in the Event of Schedule Changes, Delta offers passengers the chance to request a full refund if a schedule change results in a delay of greater than two hours.
Frontier Airlines says that “If your flight is changed, you will be sent a link via text and/or email to select a different flight or to receive a refund when available.”
As to what will qualify for a refund, it’s a little bit unclear.
The contract of carriage state that “[i]n the event Frontier determines that the schedule modification is significant, Frontier shall, if requested, provide passengers a refund of the cost of the unused portion of the ticket.”
So it comes down to what Frontier Airlines will determine is significant which would probably be a delay of two or more hours or some of the changes we have mentioned like a different airport destination.
Hawaiian Airlines states that a full refund is allowed if the arrival time for departure time is changed more than two hours from the original time.
Also, if the new itinerary requires you to change the origin or destination airport you may be entitled to a refund.
And finally, if you were switched from Hawaiian Airlines Mainline carrier to Ohana that could also qualify you for a refund. (The regional carrier is no longer in service.)
JetBlue is one of the airlines that offers compensation based on how long the flight change is.
If the flight change is between 61 and 119 minutes then you can travel on another JetBlue flight on the same day, the day prior, or the day after your original flight for no additional charge. You can also cancel and receive a JetBlue travel bank credit.
If the flight is changed by two hours or more, you can travel on another JetBlue flight within seven days before or after your original flight for no cost. You can cancel and receive the travel bank credit or you can cancel and receive a full refund.
In addition, if your flight changes from a nonstop to connecting flight, you can receive a travel bank credit, full refund, or change to another JetBlue flight within seven days before or after your original departure date.
After the fiasco Southwest suffered during Christmas of 2022, I suspect they will be making changes to their flight schedule refund policy.
As of right now they state that if you are affected by an involuntary change, you can change your flight date up to 14 days from your original travel date for no additional cost.
They also mention that if you decide not to travel as a result of the change, you can request a refund although they don’t go into much detail.
Per the somewhat unclear terms of the contract of carriage, Spirit Airlines seems to allow passengers to request a refund if a schedule change results in a change of two hours or more.
United Airlines states that they will offer you a full refund if the schedule change results in a scheduled departure or arrival time that changes “significantly.”
They will also get you a refund if they are unable to accommodate you in the same cabin that you purchased.
It seems once again that the unofficial cut-off is a delay of two hours.
Airlines reserve the right to make changes to your scheduled flight including departure time, aircraft type, connections, etc.
When these changes cause you an inconvenience, you may be able to request a free change or refund depending on the terms of the airline and the factors of your situation.
Be sure to check on the latest terms if this ever happens to you and to speak with an airline about what type of accommodations they can make for you.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.