Rosenblum: Beware 'slight' flight changes - little recourse for being rerouted

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2011 - 8:02 PM

This is a busy travel week for families taking advantage of the annual fall break for teacher conferences, better known as MEA weekend. So, kids, remember to pack a map of the United States. You might need to show it to some grown-ups if your flight gets rerouted.

Anybody else notice that those "change in your itinerary" e-mails are getting less subtle? Used to be hard to figure out what the change was; maybe a flight number or departure moved up or back by a minute. No longer.

I can deal with a nonstop flight from Minneapolis to Kansas City shifting from an 8 a.m. to a 6 a.m. departure.

But now we're going through Denver? The Denver in Colorado?

The airline's customer service representative was well-trained and genuinely empathetic when I called for a quick confirmation of how the United States is laid out. Apparently, I wasn't her only caller. She promised me a full refund if I preferred a more direct route, and wished me well as I scrambled to find two affordable seats on another airline that, for the moment, was going from Midwest City A to Midwest City B without skirting the Rocky Mountains.

I know. I shouldn't complain. Air travel remains an incredible privilege. I do love to fly. But others tell me they, too, are enduring not-so-slight flight changes made at the 11th hour, including layovers added to nonstops; flight departures pushed back by several hours, leading to missed connections; and flights all-out canceled when planes aren't full.

"We get a lot of calls, especially from older fliers who want a nonstop flight," said Joel Smiler, hotline director for flyersrights.org. "They'll be going from Detroit to Phoenix, for example, and think they're all set. Then, within a very short time frame, they're rerouted through Atlanta. They're 70 or 80 years old and don't want to have to change flights."

Their options? Aside from bucking up, they can cancel that ticket and get a refund, Smiler said, and then try to get themselves booked on another airline. "But fares at that point are just sky-high."

Travel columnist and consumer advocate Christopher Elliott hasn't missed the uptick either.

No surprise, he said, it's a money matter.

"Airlines have been reducing capacity -- going from large jets to smaller jets to regional jets -- because they want supply to match demand as precisely as they can," Elliott said. "Flying with empty seats is unprofitable and a waste of fuel. So they're constantly adjusting their flight schedules and we are sometimes the casualties of that, often with very little recourse."

Makes me wonder what other service industries could bait-and-switch like this.

There's been a change to your 8 p.m. Saturday five-course French dinner reservations. Please enjoy our all-you-can-eat fish fry at 5:30. Bon appetit!

There's been a change to tonight's Florence + The Machine concert. We know you'll enjoy Raffi's Bananaphone Revival Tour!

Frontier Airlines spokesman Peter Kowalchuk said that changes to flight schedules are "occasional," and every effort is made to notify customers using information received at booking.

"We reroute them as best we are able," he wrote to me in an e-mail correspondence regarding the curious Denver stop.

"In instances where the new itinerary is not satisfactory to a customer, we refund the purchase price."

Elliott said this isn't a magnanimous act. All airlines must put travelers on a flight of their choosing, or refund their tickets, in cases of significant schedule changes.

"It seems a bit of a double-standard," Elliott said. "If I decide that I can't make the flight, or if I get stuck in traffic, the airline won't cut me any slack. If I say it's no longer profitable for me to go to New York this weekend, they'll laugh at me. Yet, the airline is able to do this. But we do not live in a fair world."

Since we do live in a fare world, Elliott offers one more option, particularly effective for families: Throw yourself on their mercy.

"If you're a family, you basically have to appeal to the airlines, saying, 'You've got us going in the wrong direction, with a five-hour stopover. C'mon, I have young kids.' That's the argument to be making.

"Despite all the things that have been written, the airlines really don't want you to be unhappy," he said. "They will do their best to accommodate you."

OK, one more option. Chill.

"I'll tell my kids, 'Look, guys! We're in St. Louis! We've never been to St. Louis!'" Elliott said.

And Denver? The Denver in Colorado?

"Denver has a great airport to be stuck in," Elliott said. "It's clean and interesting, with lots of great shopping. It's a couple of hours of your life. Bring a book. It's not so bad."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com 612-673-7350

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