If you’ve booked a flight with much anticipation, it often happens that the scheduled times will change. Especially if it’s more than just a couple of minutes, this can be a cause for grief. But what rights do you even have in such a case? And how do you enforce them? These are questions that we hope to answer in this guide.
We are not giving you official legal advice and everything in this guide is not binding. We are simply trying to inform you about your rights as good as we can.
The basis for all of this is Regulation 261/2004 of the European Parliament and Council, made on February 11th, 2004. It is valid in the entire European Economic Area (EU, Norway, and Iceland), as well as Switzerland.
For this regulation to apply, the flight has to either be operated by a European airline, or depart from a European airport. Additionally to the EU’s Regulation 261/2004, further local laws may apply, depending on the country.
Schedule Change Or Cancellation?
You should first check if this really is a schedule change, or if it actually is a cancellation. Often, airlines will say that it is a schedule change as other rules would apply in such a case. You can recognize a schedule change very simply by checking if the flight number has remained the same. If this is not the case, this is a cancellation.
When your flight’s schedule changes, it has to be decided if the change is significant or not.
- Non-significant change: No rights
- Significant change: Right to cancel free of charge, or to rebook onto a connection with comparable transport conditions
But what does significant mean? Sadly, there currently isn’t a clear ruling on that question. Changes of a few minutes are definitely not significant, but if your flight was moved to the following day, it’s definitely significant. Everything in between is sadly quite unclear and you’re stuck with the airline’s interpretation, unless you’re willing to sue them, which would be a long and weary process with an unclear outcome. According to an internal document of Lufthansa, you’ll be offered a free cancellation for a change of 2+ hours.
The interpretation of comparable transport conditions is also tough. It is absolutely clear, that a rebooking has to take place within the same travel class. It is also probable, that comparable does not mean next available, i.e. if your nonstop flight was changed from early morning to late in the evening, you’re probably not entitled to an earlier connecting flight.
Readers with a lot of stamina and a good legal insurance are welcome to fight such a case in court and to comment the ruling in our comments section 😉
In the case of a cancellation, you’re entitled to re-routing, under comparable transport conditions, to their final destination at the earliest opportunity. This usually means that you’ll be rebooked onto the next flight. You’re also entitled to cancel the flight free of charge, even if you’ve been offered an alternative flight that’s only minutes earlier/later than your original flight.
If you flight number changes, you can assume that your original flight was cancelled. If only the scheduled times change, your flight number would remain the same. To find this out, simply check the flight number in your confirmation email (e.g. LH 837) with the flight number in the email concerning your schedule change.
Enough Theory – What Happens in Real Life?
Sounds unreal, but many airlines are actually more generous than they have to be. e.g. They often let you rebook your flight onto another flight with the same airline (group). Some airlines even rebook you onto other airlines’ flights.
It’s always worth calling the the airline and asking what your options are. Some airlines do not have clearly defined internal regulations, meaning that it sometimes helps to keep on calling until you get a representative in a good mood.
To keep this short: If the airline informs you more than 14 days before your flight, there is no compensation! If you’re notified about the changes less than 14 days before departure, the following rules apply for a compensation: Rights for a Cancellation & Exceptions
Generally, the airline always has to inform you about the cancellation or schedule change. Usually, this happens via email. You don’t have to do anything yourself except for checking the new scheduled times. It is nevertheless not a bad idea to check your booking a couple of days before your departure.
This regulation does not apply if the schedule change is due to extraordinary circumstances, which the airline can’t do anything about, such as strikes or bad weather. Technical difficulties are usually not extraordinary circumstances.
Enforcing Your Rights
Should the airline refuse to grant you your above mentioned rights, we recommend that you read the following article concerning the enforcement of air passenger rights. The detailed walkthrough is also recommendable for schedule changes:
FAQ – Frequently Asked Questions
Generally, it is irrelevant if a flight was moved to a later or earlier time, except for unscheduled delays. The decisive question is whether the schedule change is significant. What exactly that means is a matter of interpretation, as we’ve described in this article.
Yes, this case is handled like a cancellation. Thus, you can cancel for free and will be refunded the entire ticket price. It would, however, make sense to first ask, how much it would cost to be flown to/from the correct airport instead.