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In a travel climate of changes, a 'Plan B' flight could save your trip

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A family checks in for their flight to Nashville at Dallas Love Field Airport in Dallas, Texas.

A family checks in for their flight to Nashville at Dallas Love Field Airport in Dallas, Texas. (Shafkat Anowar/Dallas Morning News/TNS)

We’re ready to fly again, but are the airlines ready to fly us?

Staffing problems — a shortage of pilots, flight attendants, even baggage handlers — and unusual weather patterns have led not just to everyday cancellations, but to flights being scrapped from schedules entirely, sometimes at the last minute but often days or weeks before departure. That 9 a.m. nonstop you bought in March for a trip in May? It’s now on connecting flights with a three-hour layover. Or it now leaves at noon, which means you’ll miss the cruise or the wedding or the funeral or your kid’s starring role in the school play.

Far-in-advance airline schedule changes like these are nothing new, but they seem to be happening more often now thanks to the lingering effects of the pandemic.

First, check to see if your original flight has really changed at all. That’s what I advised Lew Davis, a high school teacher living in New York, when his morning nonstop to Denver, bought in August for a trip over Christmas week, was changed to an afternoon connecting flight. His original fare was an unbelievable $128 round trip, and Delta still offered his original nonstop flight, but now at $700. I told him to call the airline and protest. And call again, and again if necessary. The airline eventually relented and restored his original itinerary.

Airlines state in their contracts of carriage, which you can read online, that they are obligated to fly you between only the cities listed on your ticket. Schedules are not guaranteed, nor are specific routings or seat assignments.

In most cases, your only recourse if you’re unhappy with a schedule change is to request a full refund. But that won’t get you to the cruise or class reunion on time, and it may leave you needing to buy a last-minute fare at a much higher price on another airline, assuming one is available.

In most cases, a change of a few hours won’t cause havoc with your travel plans, but sometimes it can make the whole trip pointless. If you absolutely, positively need to get there on time, you might consider buying a “Plan B” flight on another airline. So if your 3 p.m. nonstop from Chicago to Miami on American is now a 6 p.m. connecting flight, request a refund and hop on your 2 p.m. backup flight on United.

Now that there are no change fees on airline tickets (you either get a flight credit or a full refund depending on the fare class), it’s a doable option for those times when missing an important occasion or a cruise departure would be unthinkable. Just be sure to cancel Plan B before takeoff if your original plans go as scheduled or there’ll be no credit or refund.

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