U.S. Airlines Sell Schedules They Don’t Really Plan To Operate, And Then Refuse Refunds

Airlines publish their schedules nearly a year in advance, but the schedules that they publish are just placeholders. They are selling tickets for flights that are not what they intend to actually fly.

While American Airlines has been selling its summer schedule for 8 months, they only finalized what it would actually be last weekend. I got a schedule change on an award ticket that created an 8 hour connection.

I’m savvy enough to know that I can use this schedule change to freely switch to an alternate itinerary that never offered award space at a reasonable price to begin with. I will come out ahead. But most people will not. For instance,

  • The airline sends them a schedule change, and that is what they fly.

  • Or they never get a notice of the change at all and find out much closer to departure. Sometimes notice of a change will come, but customers won’t notice because of all of the spam airlines send marketing ancillaries. In some cases people don’t know until they check in, because some airlines are bad at notification, the flight left earlier than it did when they purchased the ticket and they miss their flight.

  • With the schedule change they’d prefer to fly a different airline, but they are stuck. American Airlines has stuck with new pandemic-era rules for refunds and now will not refund a ticket unless the schedule change is at least four hours.

Airlines literally sell a product without knowing whether they will deliver that product (a specific flight from A to B, at time C). And when they don’t sell that product, and replace it with something different (A to B, at time D) they may say ‘close enough!’ and you’re stuck.

Brian Sumers of Airline Observer has been on this borderline consumer fraud like dirty on a duck. He says that while legalese in an airline’s adhesion contract of carriage says that schedules aren’t guaranteed, consumers should be told that buying a ticket 10 months in advance means the flight schedule may change but perhaps not enough to allow a refund.

The longer I write about airlines, the more I realize customers don’t understand the things you all think are common knowledge. And when customers don’t understand something, it’s natural that they would get angry, right? Most customers actually think — crazy as this may sound — that if they buy a ticket, they’re going to fly what they bought. They might give you a pass during unusual times, like Covid, or if you cancel a route for good due to a lack of demand. But that’s it.

How many other industries operate this way?

I didn’t mind placeholder schedules so much paired with pre-pandemic refund policies. It’s not ideal that airlines aren’t transparent about them – it was only this past weekend that American Airlines firmed its summer schedule.

But look at American’s refund policy. They won’t issue a refund for a 3 hour 59 minute schedule change. So when they sell a flight that they don’t know they’ll operate it, move it three hours, and you’re stuck with it. Revert to refunds with shorter schedule changes and this becomes more fair, though consumers still bear the schedule change risk where an alternative airline might be more expensive later.

“No change fees on non-basic economy fares” helps, since you can move flights (but not airlines). Score a win for Southwest Airlines which does change its schedule… but doesn’t actually publish one 331 days out!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. One of the biggest risks in award travel is booking with Airline A miles on Airline B. If there’s a big schedule change, there may be no better alternative with award space open or Airline A may not fly that route, or they won’t ask Airline B to open up space (looking at you Lifemiles)!

    United’s rule is two hours, I believe. The DOT wants to standardize three hours – which will be good for AA fliers but I fear UA will increase their threshold.

  2. Gary – I strongly disagree with your viewpoint. You claim they sell tickets on flights they don’t intend to fly. That isn’t exactly true. They set the placeholder schedule based on a number of factors, including anticipated load, aircraft availability, staffing, etc and then refine it. It is legal and in the contract of carriage people accept (even if they don’t realize they accept it) when they purchase the ticket and cash refunds are only available based on specific change conditions. AA is 4 hours and I think DL/UA are 2 but that is their contract the passenger enters into. BTW, every time I get a change notice, which is indicated when I check the flights on the website, it says to contact AA if the change doesn’t work. While they only refund for changes over 4 hours you can get rescheduled for other less significant changes.

    I don’t know what you want to happen! Maybe a giant banner flashing, like when you buy BE, stating the flight may change and indicate the rights. This is the way the industry works. If you waited until there was enough definitive data to set a hard schedule you couldn’t buy a ticket on any airline until 2-3 months prior to travel.

    and @Ron – good luck in small claims court. What a joke! The contract of carriage has been litigated and the FAA/DOT approved it. You have zero standing or chance to recover damages provided the airline adheres to it.

    We don’t need to give incompetent Mayor Pete and Sleepy Joe any more ideas on how to put government’s thumb on the airline industry. There are much more significant issues than a flight being rescheduled for the government to focus on!

  3. For me, it’s the change of seats resulting from the schedule change that is at least as annoying. If I buy tickets far in advance, you can be sure I have researched the seating charts and chosen our seats for very specific reasons. When flights are changed, seat selection becomes a crapshoot, and when you complain, the airline shrugs. Change of aircraft, don’t ya know.

  4. Why bother then buying ANY ticket more than 90 days in advance. I never do that at all. Even if they do end up honoring it, you’re more likely than not to get leftovers or an itinerary that just doesn’t suit your schedules at all!! What’s the point then??

  5. Europe award tickets
    Often AA advertises a decent connection when you book, then slide you to a crappy connection due to a schedule change. To get a decent connection you are then forced to BA with twice the taxes/surcharges. They have done this bait and switch for years. In our case they “forget” to notify us so by the time you rebook, all the decent seats that you had booked are now occupied.
    AA should be prosecuted for false advertising. When you call them on it they say you can always cancel. AHs
    Only 150k miles left before permanent departure

  6. Gravelly Point Guy,
    In high demand times (think the holidays) and markets, people buy tickets well in advance to have space blocked to travel. They may not know that buying that far in advance is a crap shoot.

  7. Completely naive viewpoint. Airlines publish their schedule based on data they currently have with the intent to fly them. If that data changes in the 8 months between the time you book your ticket and when you travel, which it almost definitely will, of course the airline will adjust. These policies are heavily regulated by the DOT and the ticket you purchase is a legally binding contract with your airline. It costs literally thousands of dollars to operate single flight so of course the airlines will adjust their schedule to make a profit. If you get that crystal ball working, maybe you can step in to manage a vast network of flight operations covering entire continents.

  8. @paul
    I’ve had AA operated award tickets before and was able to switch on BA operated flights without having to pay extra award fees. Classic case of HUCA.

  9. For two years airlines published schedules not “based on data they currently have with the intent to fly them” because they lacked the crew to execute..they were flights that they could operate and they just weren’t sure which ones they wouldn’t.

    Additionally airlines offer more flights in market at times than they would ever operate even at the 100th percentile distribution of probabilities, it’s a known certainty they’ll pull down the schedule and they do.

    Which is… fine. And customers ‘agree’ to is based on the adhesion contract of carriage. But I’m writing about it because not everyone KNOWS it, and because it would be a more acceptable practice – as I write – if airlines uniformly offered refunds when they do not in fact operate the schedules they sold.

  10. @ Retired Gamble
    Not sure why you have to take the default MAGA position and wail about Pete Buttigieg and POTUS while you follow the Faux News playbook and use the disrespectful epithets the crook came up with. It WOULD be good for passengers to have Passenger Bill of Rights like the EU has and I hope Pete makes it happen.

    Gary, what would you suggest passengers do, just curious? Check the flights monthly after booking? If a significant change, what is the process? Can you easily rebook into a different itinerary with miles like you suggest? Does this require a call (and likely hours on hold) to reservations? In my experience dealing with schedule changes is just not that easy, especially when dealing with 3rd party booking sites.

  11. Thanks for the response Gary. COVID was an unprecedented event for every industry with no roadmap for how to handle it. While I agree that making a schedule and hoping you would have the crew to operate it is not ideal, what solution would you propose? I’m sure that’s not a position the airline enjoys either. If you have a high capacity aircraft in a market that is not selling would you not move it to one with high demand? Providing more options in a market than necessary and eliminating unpopular ones is an understandable business practice. The particulars on whether you should be refunded and moral policy is up for debate, but current policies are in line with DOT regulations. I’m not saying that its convenient or that airlines are perfect. However, stating that airlines definitively publish schedules they have zero intention of flying is not accurate. If your goal is to educate and inform passengers, it would be more effective to write an article about what they CAN do in this situation rather than what they CANT do. Knowing your tools is the most important part of these situations. It is my opinion that you should have a basic understanding of the contract of carriage if you fly with an airline on the regular. We can agree to disagree because at the end of the day these are all opinions. More than anything I want to say thank you for responding. It’s good to have discussions rather than existing in an echo chamber of similar opinions.

  12. People don’t get notified of changes if they don’t include their correct phone numbers or emails. People refuse to give out these info thinking they will get spam mail or telemarketing calls, then they are mad when the airlines have no way of letting them know of changes.

  13. Man. For a guy who is always moaning about American Airlines, you book a lot of reward travel on them. Maybe try getting status with United or Delta?

  14. American changed our departure city from jfk to Philadelphia for a flight in may. Same departure time. Called and they handled and she just said when they do that that just assume we will call and they will help. Was crazy to think after ten days in Italy we were gonna land and jfk and have to go to Philly in two hours

  15. I’m fighting with AA right now since last weekend to get a refund. they cancelled my original connection and put me on a different one that is very short especially with family in tow, that plus a multi hour change im hopeful they’ll process it. I almost never fly AA and have discovered their customer service is terrible.

  16. Cranky Flier wrote about this issue on Fen 20. Maybe the people who read this blog might want to read that piece to get a different perspective from someone who worked for airlines. I’m not suggesting that one article is better than the other. I’m merely suggesting readers might get a better idea about the nuances of the issue from reading a different point of view.

  17. Certain AA and Alaska regional routes have been adversely affected by the pilot shortage. Prior to COVID, both AA and Alaska had non-stop flights on one of my primary routes. During COVID, those became connecting flights. Since mid-2021, the schedules of both airlines show that the route will return to non-stop . . . roughly six months in the future. Two months go by and the reinstatement date is pushed back two months. Another two months go by and the reinstatement date is pushed back another two months. It only takes being burned a few times and one learns to book a carrier whose schedule is stable.

  18. Travelers don’t really have the option to not agree to the contract of carriage– there is a general lack of competition for most routes, and airlines tend to change their policies in lockstep with each other.
    The only thing that helps is regulation — drastic, draconian, regulation.
    If airlines were given a regulatory framework that their policies have to fit into, the policies wouldn’t even be a debate in the boardrooms of airlines, nor would it be a competitive factor between airlines.

  19. Now imagine a world without DOT and FAA regulations that prevent customers from suing airlines in court for damages as they could any other corporate wrongdoer . . . and you will understand that the DOT/FAA and its complex rules and regulations exist not to protect consumer flyers, but instead exist to protect the airlines from being held accountable to them.

  20. Airlines contracts of carriage are egregious adhesion contracts, they agree to provide the service, most of the time. These contracts are especially helpful to the parties that write them in recognition of the fact that most customers never actually read them, and if they did, wouldn’t necessarily understand them. The contracts insist that the only company obligation, is to receive your money, for a service that they may not provide in a manner they originally promised in exchange.

    Everyone has their own, and, or many horror stories about how they’ve been treated by the airlines. The companies are famous for what they do and get away with, if you let them.

    There should be a passenger bill of rights that are as favorable to the passengers, as the airlines’ contract of carriage. Currently, passengers have few rights or ability to address airlines’ service failures.

  21. @Paul – first of all I feel it is always the consumer’s responsibility to understand EXACTLY what they purchase and the conditions associated with it. We can’t “dummy down” everything. Airline contracts are reviewed and approved by the government to ensure they comply with appropriate laws and regulations. There are many cases of standard contracts that people don’t understand and feel are one-sided. If you think airline contracts are bad look at insurance contracts, mortgages, car leases, etc.

    For all the whining on here about how “unfair” it is (BTW the fair has rides and elephant ears – it isn’t life) understand that if the government made radical changes that increased compensation, restricted airline operations, etc it would result in significantly higher fares. People seem to not understand that point. This is free enterprise and the largest airlines are public corporations answerable to shareholders. The will make the profit so if you take away one area (or restrict it) others will pop up to compensate.

    BTW – don’t work for an airline and never have, just a retired long-time senior executive that understands economics, law and finance.

  22. I buy thanksgiving flights and annual vacation flights up to 9 months early and monitor them. When they change times or substitute a crappy first class product, I change the flights accordingly. This is much ado about nothing. Not really even news.

  23. How about this scenario? I choose between two flights and one is $500 with a 2 hour connection, and one is $200 with a 5 hour connection. They then cancel the former and put me in the latter. Isn’t that just fraud in any sense of the word?

  24. Honestly, really even a 1-hour change from what was originally booked should be eligible for refund if the customer wants. People have actual schedules and need to plan flights around those. In many cases, even a 1-hour change could mean that the flight no longer works for them. If the new time does work or if the airline offers something that ends up being better than the newly-scheduled time, great, but if the airline is no longer offering something within a time schedule that works for the passenger, then the passenger should be allowed to cancel for full refund if they want. If I book a flight scheduled to depart at 6pm – because I intend to work until around 4 – then moving my flight to 2:15 and not even offering a refund is not acceptable.

    Sure, one can argue it’s “in the contract,” but, realistically, consumers have very little choice of what’s in said contract. It’s certainly understandable that airlines will have schedules bookable before they know for sure what they’ll be able to fly. Especially in times like right now when there are large demand uncertainties and there are also significant uncertainties in regard to what the airline may even be able to operate. It’s completely reasonable for airlines to need to change their schedules, but if the new schedule doesn’t work for people who purchased a ticket for a previous schedule, then the airline should offer a full refund. Failing to do so doesn’t really even make business sense. The savings for the airline is little-to-nothing (and perhaps even negative, as they might be able to sell the seat at a higher price to someone else,) but failing to be reasonable about it puts a bad taste in consumers’ mouths – and for good reason. The negligible gain of enforcing a 4-hour policy seems very unlikely to be worth the ill will generated among consumers, even before considering the possibility of attracting regulatory attention.

  25. Praise to Alaska. My crrpurrent airline of choice. If they change by more than an hour, you get your pick of flights within 24 hours before or after original schedule. Can’t make any of them work? Full refund.

  26. Condition of carriage is a joke. I used to think it was for the passengers benefit. Last few years not even worth the paper it was never printed on.
    I was on a three hour delay in ORD, AA even announced it was a mechanical delay. I get home call AA next day to get my 50% refund due to delay. AA rep says no, the flight was listed as a weather delay, not mechanical. Strike one
    Just 3 weeks ago on a flight to LAS from DAY, via DFW. Late leaving DAY arrived DFW, missed connection by 15m, had to stay overnight in airport. Next day 2.5h delay getting de-iced, arrived LAS for convention planned a year ahead of time. After being up for 36 hours had no energy to attend convention day I arrived. Next day had 8h to see 1700 exhibitors, impossible. Strike two.
    AA on last chance now only issue is I have boatload of miles, but from AA increasing the needed miles by up to 4x the previous requirement needed for a flight, so just about worthless to get any flights.
    AA could not give a darn about customers. They can give all the excuses they want to. AA is a lost cause, problem is the others not any better.

  27. The airlines are engaging in a classic “bait and switch.” Where are the lawmakers and regulators?

  28. That’s the widely predicted outcome (by economists that understand markers and the role of externalities) of yet another Trump lie, the one that all regulations are bad.

    His cronys are laughing all the way to the bank while citizens are left at the airport!

  29. It is absolutely time to make airlines refund customers the same change fee they charge them when the customer changes a flight. This is fraud in my opinion and I am surprised a few enterprising class action lawyers haven’t been all over this despite what the terms of carriage may say. I have had eight flights scheduled on AA right now (six international) and seven have already changed. I got a notice on two of them. I purposely take a schedule that I would never otherwise take because I know when they do change I can get a free change to a what would have been more expensive to being with. Great but if you make AA or any airline pay back the customer a change fee (typically $175 per change on AA) then all these schedule changes would magically disappear.

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