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Why your flight time could change months before a trip

Here’s what to do if it happens to you

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Seth Robbins had the timing all worked out when he booked a January trip to Cancun with his wife: leave Mexico not too early Sunday and arrive back home in Mississippi by late afternoon.

“We’re relying on people to watch our kids,” said Robbins, an attorney. “We don’t want to be rolling in on Sunday night at 10 p.m. and then have to get everybody to school the next day.”

But less than a month after booking the flight in September, United changed the flight so the couple would get home around 6 p.m. Then earlier this month, Robbins was notified about another change, this one resulting in an arrival at almost 10 p.m.

“I get that things happen,” he said. “It’s just kind of odd.”

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Many factors contribute to flight schedule changes, even in non-pandemic times. Airlines “routinely” adjust flight schedules far in advance for reasons like crew scheduling changes, airport layout shifts or swaps of aircraft types, Airlines for America spokesman Carter Yang said in an email.

Carriers might also have to tweak schedules if destinations attract fewer or more travelers than originally expected, said Robert W. Mann, a consultant and former airline executive.

“That might mean, for example, changing the equipment type larger or smaller,” he said — which could force a change in the timing of flights.

Mann said such changes are not unusual more than 60 days before a flight.

“Inside 60 days, schedules are pretty well locked down because crews have already been assigned to the schedule,” he said.

But closer to the date of a flight, rescheduling might be necessary because of concerns about whether enough flight attendants or pilots will be available, or because a certain type of plane needs to be grounded, as happened with the Boeing 737 Max, Mann said.

The pandemic has brought fresh challenges, said Laurie Garrow, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta who specializes in air travel.

“Demand, or where passengers want to fly, has gotten much more difficult to predict with a high degree of certainty," she said. Increases in coronavirus cases in certain parts of the country might cause demand to drop, or new vaccine eligibility for kids might encourage more people to book.

“All of this is making it very difficult for airlines to plan their schedule with certainty,” said Garrow, president of the Airline Group of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies. “So they are making a lot more changes even up to three weeks from departure, which frankly was unheard of before covid.”

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As airlines ramp their operations back up, staff shortages can also be an issue.

“We’ve seen some airlines realize sooner than others that they need to change their schedules fairly long in advance because they need to reflect the reality of crew resources versus what they might have expected,” Mann said.

In a statement, Delta Air Lines acknowledged that — while “not the norm” — flight changes could happen "as our teams work to accommodate the rapid return of travelers."

“We continue gaining additional insights into travel demand amid the recovery and we remain committed to making any necessary schedule changes well in advance of when our customers are flying, so they have more reliability in their plans,” the carrier said.

Charles Leocha, president of consumer advocacy group Travelers United, said Department of Transportation rules say a passenger is entitled to a refund if an airline makes a “significant schedule change" and the traveler decides not to fly.

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One catch: “Significant is never defined,” Leocha said. Airlines have their own definitions, which travelers can find in their contracts of carriage — though parsing the language can also be tricky.

Leocha said that when airlines make a change, they include language that asks the consumer to accept the new flight. If it’s not acceptable, there should be options to make a change to the updated itinerary.

Travelers can call the airline, though wait times have been extremely long, or reach out on social media, Garrow said. Delta says it has increased staffing to lower wait times and is working to improve digital options so travelers can manage trips themselves.

Robbins doesn’t know yet what he’ll do about his Cancun flight. He said United provided an option to change the flight for free, but he didn’t see the original time that he wanted.

“I don’t know that I’m going to change it,” he said. “We may just come back a day earlier. We’re working through that.”