A schedule change is when an airline changes either the flight time, the routing, or the aircraft of your original booking.
If you travel a lot for business or pleasure, you would most like to have run into a schedule change at some point in time. The further out you book your travel, the more likely it is that you will face a change. This is because airlines continually optimize routes and update their schedule to accommodate these optimizations. The more months you have between today and your travel date, the higher the chances you’ll be affected by a schedule change.
The inconvenience from these schedule changes can range from a slight annoyance to “oh my God, there’s no way I can make that connection”.
Airlines know that these changes can be inconvenient so they have policies in place to protect consumers from these unexpected schedule changes.
If you know about these protections, you can sometimes leverage them to improve your travel experience. Typically, schedule changes provide you with the ability to change your flight without any additional costs. Almost all schedule changes allow you to cancel your flight and receive a refund to the original form of payment.
Here’s what you need to know about how Canada’s two major airlines handle these changes.
Air Canada’s policy on schedule changes is virtually impossible to find. It is not clearly laid out in their Contract of Carriage and even the information Air Canada provides to travel agents isn’t clear (see below).
With the lack of clarity, I called Air Canada to get a definitive answer. Luckily I hold 35K status with Air Canada thanks to the status challenge I wrote about a while back, so there was no wait time to get through to an agent.
When I spoke to the agent, she was able to provide me with the following information and how each situation is handled.
No Changes Allowed
With the following two schedule change situations, you are not entitled to a free change. The schedule change notification that you receive by email is simply a courtesy.
- If the schedule change results in an earlier flight and you are not re-routed, you are not entitled to change your flights without a fee.
- If the schedule change results in a later departure with the same or earlier arrival, you are not entitled to change your flights without a fee.
If the schedule change results in the following situations, you are entitled to one free change and a waiver of the fare difference between the original flight and the new flight. This means that the change is completely free and all you have to worry about is whether or not there is a seat on the new flight. The current retail cost of the flight you are changing to does not matter.
- If you have a connection and the schedule change causes you to misconnect or you are no longer comfortable with the connection time, you are entitled to a free change. The agent clarified and said that “even if your original connection was 3 hours and it’s now 2:45 and this causes you anxiety, you are allowed a change”.
- If the schedule change causes you to arrive later than your original flight, you are entitled to a change. This is the most open-ended situation that is up for interpretation by the agent. It is unclear how an agent would treat a schedule change that results in you arriving 5 minutes later than originally scheduled but by the letter of the law, you should be entitled to a change.
- If you were originally booked on an Air Canada mainline flight and a schedule change puts you on a Rouge flight, you are entitled to make a change to get back on an Air Canada mainline flight as long as your origin and destination do not change.
As I mentioned earlier, if you are affected by a schedule change and you fall within the situations covered under the Free Changes section, the change fee is waived and you are NOT obligated to pay a difference in fare.
The other amazing thing is that for Air Canada, on a Domestic or Transborder flight, you are allowed a +/- 3-day booking window, meaning that if your flight was on March 15th, you can change to any flight between March 12th and March 18th.
For international flights, you are allowed a +/- 7-day booking window. If we use the same example as above, you would be allowed to book any flight between March 8th and March 22nd.
For all changes, your origin and destination must remain the same, however, if you need to connect, the connecting city does not need to be the same.
The exception to this rule is that you can choose a final destination that is within 200 miles of the original booking destination, which means that if you were originally booked from YYC-YYZ-JFK, you could instead fly YYC-YYZ-EWR/LGA/PHL/BWI/BOS and still have it a valid routing because each of the airports are within 200 miles of JFK. This only works if Air Canada operates to the airport you are trying to route to. In our above example, Teterboro, NJ (TEB) is an airport that is within a 200 radius of the original airport (JFK) but because Air Canada does not operate to TEB, the change cannot be made to that airport.
WestJet is much more defined about what constitutes a schedule change and the definition resides within their tariff. I have copied the language from the tariff (Rule 90: Schedule Irregularities, Cancellation, and Denied Boarding) below.
“Schedule Change” means the following:
- The cancellation of a scheduled flight where no WestJet flight of comparable routing is available within ninety (90) minutes of the original time of departure; or
- A change in the scheduled departure time of a WestJet flight which exceeds ninety (90) minutes; or
- A change in the routing of a scheduled WestJet flight which adds one (1) or more stops to the original itinerary; or
- A change in the routing of a WestJet scheduled flight that results in a scheduled arrival time more than ninety (90) minutes later than the original scheduled arrival time; or
- Any change in the arrival time of a WestJet flight that results in a misconnection to any flight shown in the same reservation and Ticket.
If any of these criteria are met, a free change is allowed, which includes a waiver of the fare difference on the new flight. WestJet allows a +/- 2-day booking window, which is not as generous as Air Canada.
While the definitions are more defined with WestJet, they are not as generous as Air Canada.
I called WestJet to better understand the rules and the agent that I reached advised me that there are imminent changes to the schedule change policy. While she could not give me definitive information, she did advise that if a schedule change occurs within 14 days of the date of travel, they will have a lot more of an ability to assist guests with free changes. She also clarified that the 14 days are counted as of the date of notification, not the date in which the guest calls in to resolve the issue.
We will have to wait to see what changes will occur but I would imagine that it is not all that guest friendly.
How You Can Benefit
When a schedule change occurs, it’s almost as good as a blank cheque with the airline. While there are rules that prevent circuitous or non-sensical routings, you can use these schedule changes to improve your itinerary. If you’re on a revenue fare, you pretty much have your choice of flights you can switch your travel to.
As an example, I recently had a Calgary (YYC) to Los Angeles (LAX) direct flight booked but the return was significantly cheaper if I stopped in Edmonton (YEG) so my return was LAX-YEG-YYC on WestJet. While this wasn’t the most preferable routing it was fine.
Yesterday, I received a notification of a minor schedule change that saw a departure out of Calgary and Los Angeles 15-minutes earlier than originally scheduled.
I wasn’t sure if this would work or not but I gave WestJet a call and told the agent that I had received a schedule change email and asked if I could route directly back from Los Angeles to Calgary on the direct flight. I provided the flight number of the direct flight (WS1511) and crossed my fingers. The agent took a look at my itinerary, said that it was no problem, placed me on a quick hold and advised me that the flights had been changed. There were no change fees.
Letter of the Law vs Reality
As you probably noticed, my particular situation did not fall within WestJet’s definition of a schedule change (> 90 minutes), but I was able to get a change to a better flight for now cost. The question is why?
Airlines understand that schedule changes are inevitable and have policies to help with these situations, but with that being said, not all airline employees fully understand these guidelines. If you receive a schedule change notification and you want to make a change, it makes sense to call and try your chances at with receiving a free change.
If you aren’t successful, you always have the option of hanging up and calling again to speak to another agent.
While schedule changes can be an annoyance, you can often make lemonade from the lemons you are dealt. Your best bet is to provide the agent with your preferred flight change and let them try to fulfill your request.