NEW YORK -- It's the ultimate travel bait and switch.
You book a ticket on a nonstop flight, but the airline cancels it a few weeks later, leaving a computer to automatically rebook you. Your new itinerary includes a layover, turning a five-hour trip into an eight-hour journey.
"You are at the mercy of the airline," says Anna Stinson, 40, of Minneapolis.
In May, Stinson bought tickets for a trip to North Carolina in the middle of August. She is traveling with her four-year-old son and picked Delta because it offered a nonstop flight.
Then as part of systemwide cuts, the flight was eliminated. She was rebooked with a connection in Atlanta.
"I'm frustrated," Stinson says. "I don't have the product that I gave them my money for."
With airlines cutting schedules due to high fuel costs, travelers who booked flights in advance now might find their plans upended. And it's likely to get worse for the fall.
Delta (Charleston's top carrier by passenger volume) cut 3.5 percent of its domestic flights for September and 1.6 percent for October. US Airways (No. 2 in Charleston) cut 4.5 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively, and United cut 4.4 percent and 5.3 percent, according to Barclays Capital. That's nearly 1,000 fewer flights than last year for just those three airlines.
"You are more likely than ever to find the plans you made for November might change and might change dramatically," says aviation consultant Michael Boyd.
Sometimes connections are added to trips. Other times a two-hour layover is extended to a six-hour stop.
The government offers travelers little protection and by the time a schedule change comes there are few alternatives. Although airlines have already set their schedules for the fall, experts warn that further cuts could come.
"If the economy becomes markedly worse, fuel costs remain high and business travel demand slackens, then I expect we'll see airlines reduce capacity," says Henry H. Harteveldt, an airline analyst with Forrester Research.
To prevent a travel nightmare, arrive a day early if taking a cruise or attending a wedding. Also, provide an up-to-date phone number and email address when making a reservation so airlines can contact you immediately in the event of a schedule change.
If your schedule does get changed:
--Don't just accept the computer's picks. Call the airline and see if it has a better option.
--Know your alternatives. Go to the airline's website and search flights by schedule. When calling to complain, asked to be placed on the specific flight you want.
--Check other airlines. You might be able to get a refund and buy a new ticket on another carrier. However, the closer you get to your travel date the more expensive airfare tends to be.
The airlines say such schedule changes are necessary to keep their operations flexible and profitable. They claim to make every effort to best accommodate those inconvenienced.
The Department of Transportation's airline customer protection rules don't address the issue, except to say that airlines should offer refunds for "a significant change" in departure or arrival time.
What constitutes a big change varies between airlines. For instance, Delta offers refunds to passengers who don't arrive within 90 minutes of their originally scheduled time. American offers vouchers for changes of more than one hour and cash refunds for changes of more than two hours. US Airways will refund a ticket if any schedule change is unacceptable to a passenger as long as it was purchased directly though the airline.
Where can you find the rules? They're buried inside a lengthy document called the "contract of carriage" that governs what responsibilities an airline has to passengers.
"They're making it as difficult as possible to read," says Christopher Elliott, a travel consumer advocate.
Refunds often aren't helpful to passengers. By the time a schedule change comes, there might not be another flight available at a comparable price.
"It's going to cost you three or four times as much as it would have three months ago," says Kate Hanni, executive director FlyersRights.org. "A refund is not a remedy."