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Bumped from online service's booking? It's probably airline's doing

Airline schedules change frequently. What can you do if you're rebooked on flights you don't like?

Question: My sister and her 14-year-old daughter are traveling from Kalispell, Mont., to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. My sister booked two round-trip tickets through Expedia and was happy with the price and the timing, along with the fact that there was only one stop. She paid for the tickets and received email notification that she was booked. Expedia later sent her an email saying the flights she paid for were no longer available and gave her a new booking without consulting her. The new booking required two stops, including one that involves an eight-hour middle-of-the-night layover. After a lot of negotiation, Expedia finally changed the reservation to something better, but she still ended up with two stops and also had to pay more. Can Expedia change tickets paid for well in advance at their whim?

Robin Reinhart

San Diego

Answer: It wasn't Expedia that changed the flights; it was the airline.

Warren Chang, vice president for Fly.com, an airfare search engine not affiliated with Expedia, explained it this way: "We know that flight schedules change, but it's usually not very noticeable to the typical traveler … unless it is a flight that we have already booked," he said in an email. "Flight schedule changes are most noticeable due to seasonality. For example, United offers nonstop service between Newark, N.J., and Grand Cayman, except during the summer, when it is not considered a peak travel time.

"Also, seasonal weather patterns impact flight schedules, with airlines routing planes based on changes to the jet stream and other weather conditions for more fuel efficient and smoother flights."

Airline economics being what they are — especially the ongoing need for revenue — you also can expect that routes that aren't cash cows end up in the equivalent of the airline slaughterhouse.

In any case, Expedia isn't the culprit. This was just one change of 9 million schedules it said it deals with each year.

"Expedia does not have the authority to change flights," said Martin Gurth, senior manager of customer experience at Expedia. "And in accordance with our agreements with airlines, once a ticket is issued, the airline is authorized to make changes and will pass along information of those changes to Expedia.

"As the travel agency, Expedia then alerts the customer to these changes as quickly as possible and works with the customer to try to find suitable, alternate travel options."

George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog, which focuses on finding lower-priced fares, often gets the question about schedule changes and raises this red flag: In one recent case (not involving Expedia), a traveler he knows bought a ticket on a nonstop flight at a good price. Then the airline rescheduled him.

Turns out there were plenty of seats available on the original flight —but they cost more than he paid.

"They [had taken him] off the nonstop, put him on a connecting [flight] and tried to sell his nonstop seat at a higher price," Hobica said. "After he called [the airline], they said, 'OK we will put you back on original nonstop.'"

That's not the case with these tickets, Hobica said after studying airline schedules along with the original and subsequent routing. "What I found is that no airline flies that route and those dates without making two stops in at least one direction," he said.

If you are rerouted, check immediately to see whether the route is still being flown. Passengers "should always see if there are seats available … to make sure they are not being bamboozled," he said, which, again, was not the case here.

So what's a traveler to do? "Customers generally have two options when it comes to dealing with airline schedule changes," Gurth said. "They can rebook acceptable flights (and reissue tickets) if the same class of service and fare are available on the same airline, which may involve different routing but ultimately the same origin and destination.

"Customers may also choose to apply for a full refund due to what the airlines consider an 'unacceptable schedule change.'"

What if the fliers find a better fare on their own that's lower than the one that Expedia has changed them to? "Generally speaking, airlines will not allow Expedia to reduce the fare and issue a refund to the customer without applying the 'change penalty' … to the fare difference," Gurth said.

Change fees have grown so stiff on most airlines that they often negate the value of the ticket — they totaled $2.9 billion in 2014, a number that has grown by nearly 23% in the last five years, according to figures released this month by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The only bit of happy news is that the $14 in booking fees were refunded. Otherwise, we are reminded, once again, that we are puppets at the end of the airlines' long and tangled strings.

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