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Airlines constantly adjusting their schedules means you can easily change your flight for free or get a refund — here's how

Business Insider logo Business Insider 8/18/2020 (Thomas Pallini)
a large air plane on a runway at an airport: Los Angeles International Airport. Kit Leong / © Kit Leong / Los Angeles International Airport. Kit Leong /
  • Airlines are frequently changing their flight schedules during the pandemic as uncertainty regarding travel demand lingers.
  • Any change made to a flight once it's booked by a passenger is known as a schedule change.
  • Flyers can use a schedule change to their advantage to change their flight for free or even request a refund. 
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Airline flight schedules are not set in stone and are frequently changed depending on the company's operational needs. 

Travelers experience these schedule changes more than they realize but they're often too subtle to notice, especially if flyers aren't frequently checking in on their bookings. For example, A flight scheduled for 8:30 p.m. now leaves at 8:27 p.m. and the Airbus A320 that was originally operating the flight is now an Airbus 319.

The average person might not care about a three-minute difference and a minor aircraft swap since they're still getting from the point A to B. But even the simplest and normally imperceptible schedule change can put travelers in the driver's seat and allow them to take control of their travel plans without paying a cent in change fees or fare differences, while also giving travelers an out if they no longer want to fly but have a non-refundable ticket. 

The pandemic has only accelerated the rate at which airlines are adjusting schedules because future demand for air travel is increasingly unpredictable. An airline may think it needs six flights per day flying between New York and Seattle a month from now but realize in two weeks it will only fill half, canceling the others. 

Here's how passengers can master the art of the schedule change.

Types of schedule changes

a screen shot of a computer: A flight information board displays cancelled flights at Reagan National Airport. Joshua Roberts/Reuters © Joshua Roberts/Reuters A flight information board displays cancelled flights at Reagan National Airport. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Schedule changes typically fall into three categories: time changes, aircraft changes, and routing changes. Time changes are among the most common as airlines often need to make slight adjustments to flight times for various reasons. 

Airlines often have rules regarding how big a time change has to be before they'll agree to make a change for free. Delta's rule is 90 minutes while United's is at their discretion, with the exact rules typically available on each airline's website.

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But if the change exceeds those limits, any flight in the schedule is up for grabs as long as the origin and destination stay the same. Even the date can often be changed by a day in either direction.

For example, a thrifty traveler who booked the cheapest ticket for Thanksgiving morning that includes a one-stop itinerary from New York to Los Angeles and experienced a schedule change can easily have it changed to the non-stop the day before.  

While airline customer service agents will tell you the rules are firm, some agents or their supervisors may make an exception if you give a reason why you need to arrive at a specific time. With connecting flights, a schedule change of even five minutes that slightly shortens a layover can be reason enough to make a change if you think it's not enough time to get from plane to plane. 

Aircraft swaps are also schedule changes

a airplane that is parked on the tarmac at an airport: Two American Airlines planes in Atlanta. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider © Thomas Pallini/Business Insider Two American Airlines planes in Atlanta. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

If a flight sells out weeks in advance of the trip, an airline may upgrade the aircraft to a larger bird while if you're the only one on the flight, you may be flying on a smaller plane than originally slated. The latter, however, can often be justification enough to be moved to a new flight, especially if the swap is from a mainline aircraft to a regional aircraft. 

Any aircraft change is considered a schedule change and gives airlines room to work with flyers, especially as some flyers look for a specific aircraft type when booking a flight. Had a bad experience on an aircraft that you don't want to repeat or one jet is better for social distancing than the other? Whether the ride is an upgrade or downgrade, the case can always be made for a free change to a new flight. 

Routing changes can also be used to justify a free change, especially if a non-stop itinerary was changed to a connecting one. A recent flight booking I had from Cleveland to Newark saw my non-stop flight change to a connecting flight through Chicago and I was allowed to make a free change as a result. 

Getting a refund with a schedule change

a person sitting in a chair talking on the phone: A Delta Air Lines ticketing agent. Reuters © Reuters A Delta Air Lines ticketing agent. Reuters

An often unknown aspect of the schedule change is that it allows passengers to cancel a flight and get a refund if the new option is unacceptable. Agents won't be likely to be as lenient when it comes to getting a refund versus making a change, however, and the change will likely have to fall within the airline's published rules. 

But the right schedule change can be an instant way out or put in a passenger's back pocket in case they change their mind about taking the flight down the road.

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