The holiday's booked, you're all set, but the airline suddenly announces a change to your flight time, officially labelled a 'schedule change'. Here are your rights and what you can do.
Importantly, this guide is about a pre-arranged flight-time change, not a sudden delay due to bad weather, crew shortage, a technical problem or industrial action. See our Flight Delay Compensation guide for your rights in these situations.
What right does the airline have to change my flight? I agreed to its timings when I booked. Unfortunately in most cases airlines can change the time or even the date of your flights, according to their terms and conditions.
For example, British Airways states: "The flight times shown in our timetables may change between the date of publication and the date you actually travel. We do not guarantee these flight times to you and they do not form part of your contract of carriage with us."
UK regulator the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) confirms where schedule changes are to the time or date (not the flight number), these are only covered by airline T&Cs, not by any law.
While airlines generally release tickets anything up to 12 months in advance, airports only actually confirm flight slots about three months ahead, which means times can change. Airlines may also mess about with timings if they change the aircraft type.
If you're moved to a different flight altogether (ie, a different flight number) you'd likely be covered under different, far tighter EU flight cancellation laws, where you'd get a full refund or new flight, and possible compensation. This sometimes happens when an airline fails to sell enough seats, so cancels the flight.
So what are my rights if they change my flight time? It depends on the type of change they make, which can be grouped into three types:
Minor change – Each airline has a different definition, which can be anything from departures delays of under one-hour to under 12 hours (see table below for timings). The T&Cs usually state you'll need to accept the delay but it's worth trying to get a refund or alternative flight if the delay is a significant inconvenience, say, you were only going for a short time or needed to be at your destination by a certain time.
Significant – If the departure delay is longer than the airline's definition of a minor delay, you have more options. Of the airlines we checked (see table below), all said you'll usually be offered a refund or a comparable flight (ie, Heathrow instead of Gatwick, or within a few days' time). If it's a refund you're usually entitled to money back for any unused flights on your booking. If you've booked an outbound and return separately, you generally won't be entitled to a refund for both legs, but there's no harm asking.
Cancellation – If your flight is cancelled you're covered by law and entitled to a refund or alternative flight. If the cancellation is within 14 days of departure you could also be entitled to compensation. See Flight Cancellation Rights for more. It's not always clear if your original flight has been cancelled, but a good indicator is if your flight number has changed. If in doubt ask the airline if it was cancelled.
Airline-by-airline – what's a 'significant' change?
|Airline||Departure delay (i)|
|(i) Departure is classed as the time the plane leaves the gate, not when it takes off. (ii) Depending when the change to flight time is made.|
Had a schedule change? Check if you can play the system to save £100s. Before you readily accept an alternative flight, always check the cost of booking a new one before automatically taking the airline's alternative, as it may be cheaper to grab the refund and book again yourself. See our Cheap Flights guide for top tips.
Forumite Tuffnel reported paying £300 for flights, but discovered after a schedule change an alternative flight would have cost £150. So he could have made £150 getting a refund and booking again as a new customer.
How will I be told of a schedule change? The CAA says airlines should always tell passengers at least 14 days in advance.
Generally an airline will email changes, but it's also worth logging in to the 'manage my booking' section of its website to double-check. Some airlines say they will call or text a customer if they do not respond to an email.
If you booked through a travel agent, airlines may not have your contact details so the agent would be expected to contact you.
Given the possibility of changes it's vital that you give your correct contact details when making a booking. While the onus is on the airlines to tell you about a change, you have to be contactable.
If you think you were not contacted and therefore missed a flight you can contact the CAA's passenger advice and complaints team on 0207 453 6888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org (as long as it's for a flight departing the UK).
I've been told of a schedule change – how do I accept or decline it? The airline should tell you what number to call or email to write to if you want a refund or new flight.
If you're happy to go ahead with the new time, you often don't need to do anything, but the airline may ask you to acknowledge the change by email, phone or via its website before your seat is confirmed, so it's worth checking.
Can I get any extra compensation for a schedule change? All airlines we asked simply offer an alternate flight or a refund if there's been a schedule change.
You've no right to additional compensation, eg, to make up for a non-refundable hotel or car hire booking (though always ask them for a refund), and there's no law to back you up here.
Even if you've travel insurance you're unlikely to get anything as compensation as a result of a schedule change – other than in rare cases.
We checked with Aviva, Coverwise, Infinity Insurance and Swiftcover, who all said they would not cover this. Some higher-end policies may do, such as LV Premier, though only if the rescheduled time is more than 24 hours later.
Remember this guide is all about schedule changes. If the delay is due to something else, such as bad weather or industrial action, you may be covered under more comprehensive travel insurance policies, but check with your insurer and see Cheap Travel Insurance for the top deals.