When an airline swaps planes before your flight, where do you stand?

By John Walton, January 23 2013
When an airline swaps planes before your flight, where do you stand?

Aircraft like the Airbus A380 superjumbo and Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner are an understandable drawcard for many travellers, but the plane you book to travel on isn't always what you end up with.

It's a situation brought into sharp focus with the recent rollout of the Boeing 787. Early adopters such as ANA, Japan Airlines, United Airlines and Qatar Airways saw travellers flocking to their 787 flights in preference to other aircraft.

All went well until some 787's were pulled out of service for an assortment of faults, leading up to this month's grounding of all Boeing 787s for battery checks – which in turn has seen Qatar postpone next week's planned debut of a Dreamliner on the daily Perth-Doha flight.

When the seat type changes

Last-minute changes to an aircraft can also affect the type of seat you'll get.

Let's say you booked a flight in business class on Qantas' Airbus A380, which is fitted with the Red Roo's fully flat Skybed Mark II business class seat — but the A380 is replaced by an older Boeing 747s sporting the less comfortable angled lie-flat Skybed Mark 1 in business.

(Yes, Qantas has upgraded nine of its 747s, but there are still nine remaining with the original seats.)

Of course, Qantas isn't the only airline where this happens — most large airlines have a variety of aircraft in their fleets and will swap planes for reasons ranging from mechanical difficulties to ongoing delays or simply just not enough passengers booked on a flight.

Bad news: airlines are not required to tell you, let alone to compensate you, when your plane changes from one type to another.

You're unlikely to get more than a token flight voucher that maxes out at a few hundred dollars, or a fistful of frequent flyer points if you're a member of the airline's program.

When it's more about the plane

Even before the recent stoush about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner's batteries, United was having a few Dreamliner dramas.

Having extensively promoted the Dreamliner flights and the aircraft's many benefits, thousands of United passengers booked their travel accordingly – only to arrive at the airport and find their promised 787 had been swapped for an older and much less exciting Boeing 777.

Cynthia Drescher, managing editor of travel mag Jaunted, was on one of those flights.

"I didn't know it had been swapped until I looked out the window at the gate, and I constantly check my flight details for changes," Drescher tells Australian Business Traveller. "Even the gate agents didn't know that it had happened — a 777 had just shown up instead."

"I later discovered that the plane that I was due to have — down to the registration number — had been out of service for several days."

And Drescher wasn't alone in her desire to fly the shiny new Dreamliner. She was astounded to discover how many of her fellow passengers also knew that they were missing out on the 787.

"When the swap came through, and everybody had their seat changes, everyone was talking about the fact that it wasn't going to be a 787. A high amount were well aware of what they'd booked."

So what should airlines do when they swap planes?

At the very least, passengers should be notified: the airline's system ought to spit out an email or an app notification informing you of the change.

After all, handing over your email address to the airline seems to result in any number of targeted sales emails, so it's not unreasonable that they also email you for something you may actually want to know about.

But is it also unfair to expect the opportunity to rebook without penalty onto the aircraft which you originally booked?

Many passengers will need to take their original flight, but others may prefer to shift their flight a day or two in order to get the better seat or just have the experience of flying the newer plane.

What should the airline do in cases like this? What's your experience been of airline notifications — not to mention rebooking and compensation? Share your knowledge with fellow travellers in a comment below.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 526

Qantas have always called to inform me if they have an aircraft swap. As annoying as it can be when that happens and you end up with an inferior product, I have also had it happen when I've ended up with a superior product.

It hasn't happened all that often for me so I'm not really too fussed as long as I get that phone call and know what to expect. If it was a frequent occurence where I ended up getting an inferior product then I would probably consider flying with an airline with a more stable fleet!

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2549

Having done a decade of PR in a former life, and given that airlines know their new birds will be a drawcard – just look back at the first six months of the QF A380, for example – I'd suggest they could do worse than to consider playing up to this with special packages built around new aircraft types.

For example: imagine a heavily-promoted Dreamliner package where you could book your seat on a 787 flight at a special price, maybe get some little Dreamliner trinket AND a guarantee that if the plane is swapped you'll get notified (within X hours of the decision being made by the airline) and have the option to rebook at no cost (or receive a travel voucher to same value as your ticket).

Those are just tossed-out-there thoughts, but it's one way that airlines could  really ride the wave of popularity for new aircraft types.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Apr 2011

Total posts 3

I was booked in J on sale fare with QF for SYD-SIN business trip last year and asked my assistant to book me specifically on a A380 flight.  A few days out I received a call from QF to advise of a plane change and was given the option to select new seat.  Possibly because I had pre-selected?  Anyway when I mentioned I was specifically wanting to do the flight on the A380, the agent gave me the option of changing to a different flight with no fees, which I happily took advantage of.  Not sure if being a QFF Plat meant they were more accommodating than they ordinarily would be?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

06 Apr 2011

Total posts 106

I've had 2 experiences of aircarft changes in the last few years. My wife & I were booked to fly MEL-SIN with SIA on the A380 around the time of the Qantas engine drama at Singapore. Although SIA advised us their A380's would still be in service, the evening before our flight we received a call from the airline informing us that a 747 would be replacing the A380 & offering us $S50 each to change our flight. For several reasons, we declined & flew on the 747

More recently, in August last year, I booked Premium Economy MEL-HKG-KIX online with CX. During the booking process, the system informed me the HKG-KIX-HKG legs would be in Y as PE wasn't available, although the fares would be at the PE rate. On boarding in HKG, we were suprised to walk through a PE cabin on the way to our seats in Y. A crew member I approached about our booking advice said we could move to PE seats after take-off but there weren't any available

I emailed CX from Japan to ask why we hadn't been allocated PE seats & was told there had been a change of aircraft & that I should check prior to leaving Japan to determine if PE seats were available on the KIX-HKG flight. There wasn't any offer of compensation or any explanation as to why we hadn't been given PE seats. I would have taken the matter further if my wife hadn't suddenly become ill & required medical treatment in Japan

As it turned out, there wasn't any PE cabin on the return flight from KIX

Using the CX website to book the same trip on the same day/month this year brings up the same 'No PE seats' message. I think CX needs to do something positive for PE customers who find themselves downgraded to Y in this situation


04 Nov 2010

Total posts 670

Agfox raises an interesting issue with regards to premium economy, for some airlines this is only a recent development and not on all planes. CX is a good example, it's only just this month been available on all CX flights from Australia and still isn't available on all CX flights around the world. If I paid for premium economy and a last-minute change of plane means there was no premium economy cabin I would expect business class to be the default, based on frequent flyer status, so if there are 10 empty seats in business class they're first allocated to the top tier of CX Marco Polo and then the equivalent tier for any OneWorld airlines (Qantas Chairman's Club, Platinum One etc). If there's no business class left then I would expect the option to change my flight or to be seated in economy and refunded the different in ticket price AND given a bunch of frequent flyer points or a voucher.


23 Jan 2013

Total posts 175

Happened on my recent trip. My EY 455 flight was scheduled as an A340-600 with their new business class, but we got the A340-500 with the old, sea green, product. That was okay though as I was upgraded and avoided it. Unfortunately, the EY454 flight was also switched and I had to endure the less flyer friendly business class. Their new offering is far superior (also experienced it on the same trip). 

Given that they waived my excess baggage I consider that compensation enough (even though it had nothing to do with the swap and everything to do with the good will of ground staff). 

Wasnt really that disappointed, although I'll be pleased when Etihad finally puts an end to the sea green product.

01 Aug 2012

Total posts 30

I think planes changes are especially relevant if the seats on the new plane represent a sea change for the airline. The best example is probably LOT where the 787 routes have now gone back to 767. What a nasty surprise if you expected fully-flat seats with a state-of-the-art entertainment system and instead get tired old seats that aren't even angled-flat and tiny screens with no more than an handful of movies to choose from..

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 1378

Worst change I have had was a swapout of an American plane with lie-flat business seats (think 767-300) to a MD-80 on an overnight ORD-LAX flight...

No compensation offered at all.


06 Nov 2012

Total posts 46

I'm booked Qatar  Per - Doh - CDG in March. Originally it was a 777, updated to 787 and now reverted back to 777. Although this would be my first time of QT (and hence no points or SC) I am flying J and would have expected some sort of notification - there has been nothing. Rather disappointing.

QF Platinum

24 Jan 2013

Total posts 138

Booked to fly MEL-SIN-HK with SQ in First class A380 suite all the way return later in the year but found out recently while looking online (and not informed by customer service) that SQ218 MEL-SIN downgraded to B777-300 ER with old First class product...thought they'd at least call you to let you know of the change having paid a handful for the ticket!

21 Feb 2012

Total posts 2

I'm about to book an airline based on the fact that they have a fully-flat seat in business class so I'm a bit shocked to read that they do not have to give me that once I have paid for it.  I have had major back operations which will require the fully-flat bed or not travel at all but I'm very flexible as to the date of travel.  Will they be able to accommodate my requirements or not?  If not, I cannot go too far.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

31 Aug 2012

Total posts 210

Yes, all seats are not equal! It is very frustrating to actually select a particular seat and find out that seat number is in quite a different position on the aircraft you actually board! This happens because of the different layouts on the same type of aircraft, for instance Qantas has a number of 747 models with very different PE, Biz and F class layouts. So what you clicked on-line is not necessarily what you end up with. Qantas can attempt worm their way out of this by saying it is still a 747 as advertised should you have the temerity to bring it to their notice. They choose not to ring you for something like that.

They will though ring your mobile (left with your partner in Sydney, in the middle of the night) to attempt to reach you to tell you to hurry to the gate in LAX right this instant as your connection is ready for departure!!! Yes, I'm looking at you, QANTAS!

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