Airlines are quick to charge a fee to passengers who revise the itinerary of a nonrefundable ticket, but what happens when it's the air carrier who initiates the change?
Airlines constantly tweak their schedules, and several times a year they implement changes as they reposition aircraft to accommodate peak travel periods.
Typically, the changes are minor, a few minutes here or there. But sometimes they are significant, especially if a flight is canceled outright.
In January, a colleague paid a premium for a direct American Airlines flight to the Caribbean so his family could depart at the relatively civilized time of 9 a.m. instead of 7:15 a.m. Two months later, he was sent a notice that his departure had been changed to 7 a.m. He complained to American, but the airline would not accommodate or compensate him.
I encountered a similar situation on a recently booked flight from Boston to St. Louis. The United Airlines flight I booked on Orbitz, the online travel agency, was scheduled to take off at 8:15 a.m. and arrive in St. Louis at 1:14 p.m. after a two-hour layover in Chicago. Five days after my original booking I received a notice from Orbitz saying my itinerary had been changed. The flight would be taking off at the same time, but now I wouldn't arrive in St. Louis until 4 p.m., with nearly a five-hour layover in Chicago.
Eight days later, I received a second notice, informing me that I would now be leaving 20 minutes earlier, meaning that a trip that was originally scheduled to take five hours was now going to take eight hours.
Neither notice mentioned any recourse that I might have.
An Orbitz spokeswoman referred me to Lisa Gerbick, a customer service representative at the agency, who promptly booked me on a new connecting flight from Chicago to St. Louis that got me in at 12:08 p.m., even earlier than the original flight I had booked.
She explained that the flight arriving at 12:08 p.m. was with Trans States, a code-share partner of United, while United had booked me on a United flight. She said United probably had booked me on its own flight to avoid having to share part of my fare with Trans States, which operates under the United Express name.
''The airlines will do what's best for them. If a flight's not heavily booked, they will put you on that flight," Gerbick said.
Robin Urbanski, a spokeswoman for United, which is currently operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, said itinerary changes are fairly common in fall and spring. She said customers are automatically routed to the next best flight if their original flight is canceled or changed.
Urbanski didn't know why I was booked on a flight arriving at 4 p.m., but said it was possible the earlier flight Orbitz put me on was fully booked when the original flight change occurred.
Gerbick said most airlines will issue a refund to a customer when an airline-initiated itinerary change causes a delay of more than 90 minutes, but a spokesman for the US Transportation Department said he was not aware of any 90-minute rule.
Spokesman Bill Mosley said the department sent an advisory letter to the airlines about their responsibility in such situations after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In the Sept. 25, 2001, letter, Norman Strickman, assistant director for aviation consumer protection, said airlines should not apply nonrefundability or penalty provisions in situations where a ''significant change in scheduled departure or arrival time has been necessitated by carrier action." Unfortunately, the letter did not define ''significant."
Gerbick said travelers should always call the airline or their travel agent if a schedule change would inconvenience them.
''Most travelers don't realize that they have that option, to go back to the airline and ask for something better," she said.
Bruce Mohl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.