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Do the Airlines Provide Adequate Connection Times?

Cindy Loose

What better time than the busiest travel day of the year to talk about missed airline connections? At a briefing last week to expound on how to prepare for the busy skies during the Thanksgiving holidays, Jim May, head of the Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, urged that people allow lots of time for connections. Can you give a rule of thumb about how much time is needed, I asked, and by the way, aren't airlines the ones that create connection times, not passengers?

If I'd intended to be rude I'd have pointed out that his advice was months late, given that most people flying over Thanksgiving were already booked. Nonetheless, he acted as if I were a dentist who'd hit a nerve. People choose flights, he said, and he wasn't going to get into that with me now.

Could it be that maybe the airlines the ATA represents are routinely providing inadequate connection times, and feeling a little defensive about it?

Yes, passengers are the ones who choose flights, and the savvy ones will look at connection times to see if they make sense. After reading in our section on Nov. 11 a piece about a travel nightmare that started with a missed connection, a reader wrote me to say that she checked her family's flight to Greece over Christmas: She had been sold a ticket that gave her 50 minutes to get from her gate in Newark to the other side of the terminal, and was supposed to be at her international gate 30 minutes before scheduled departure. When she asked the airline if she could go on an earlier flight to Newark, she was told sure, but that'll be a $200 per ticket change fee, plus $50- something for processing the change.

Okay, so you could argue the reader should have thought about connection times before buying a ticket with a close connection. Then what about another reader who, when buying a ticket, asked for an earlier flight to connect with her flight to Hawaii, and was told no.

What's up with that? You can't always get what you want generally, but seems to me you should be able to get what you want if you're paying for it and it exists on the open marketplace.

Anyone else had tight connection experiences? By the way, one of the reasons airlines sell flights with tight connections is they say they have to because so many people will buy tickets based on how long the trip will supposedly take. Before buying a ticket with a connecting flight, do you consider total trip time and buy the one that takes the least time, on paper at least? Or do you look at connection times and reject flight pairs that seem risky? Or do you not consider time at all?

By Cindy Loose |  November 21, 2007; 11:25 AM ET  | Category:  Airline Industry , Cindy Loose
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When buying tickets to Italy earlier this year, I noticed that all the cheaper tickets had very tight connection times, such as an hour to catch our flight in Paris or Frankfurt on to Italy -- an hour for a flight originating from the US! Meaning we'd have to be on time, get off the huge jet quickly, go through customs/immigration in just a few minutes and make it to the other end of the airport. I kept getting emails from various sites showing these flights as the best deals, when I knew it would be impossible to make our connections.

Posted by: Melanie | November 21, 2007 11:46 AM

I don't take any flights with close connection times. An orignating flight delayed, and it's curtains. Since there are multiple airports, we can usually get something that will work. With I have the little ones, I stake out the airport map, and figure out where that particular airlines gates are.

If I don't see a combination on line taht works, I'll gladly pay the $15 - $25 extra to make sure that we have some wiggle room for a late arrival, and a potty trip before take-off.

Posted by: when you travel with kids.. | November 21, 2007 1:32 PM

My husband and I have given up on connections during the holiday seasons. (Actually, we're not traveling this year and are giddy because of it.) It's bad enough trying to get on one flight, let alone two or three. Especially for NW, which runs its connections through Detroit or Memphis. So you can have either massive lake effect snow shutting down Detroit, or ice storms shutting down Memphis.

We either drive to MSP (instead of using our puddle-jumper service), or if pressed, we drive to O'Hare (a 4+ hour drive), because there are no flights from MSP to a place where one half of our family is located, but plenty of non-stops on various airlines at O'Hare.

We figure we're still coming out ahead in the latter situation, since if we're stuck in O'Hare, there are a variety of flights to choose from.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | November 21, 2007 2:12 PM

It depends...if I'm flying in the morning and know the layout of the airport where I'm making the connection and it's a short trip w/no checked bags, I'll often take the chance, but I never do this if I'm connecting to the last flight of the day or if there aren't many flights between my connecting airport and final destination.

I actually find that the really cheap flights often give you a ridiculously LONG layover...but I can usually snag a standby seat on an earlier flight (obviously easier to do as a solo traveler rather than as a family with kids).

That said, it's irresponsible of an airline or online travel agency to even provide flight options that don't give travelers enough time to make a connection based on the airline's own rules about check-in times and baggage handling times. All that does is lead to frustration and disrupted trips on the travelers' part, and more hassles for customer-service agents that get stuck having to re-route and re-ticket passengers from missed flights. This is a major cause of flight delays in the first place, as the gate agents try desperately to find seats on already-full flights for travelers who missed their connections.

Of course, it doesn't help that most companies require employees who travel to choose the cheapest fares rather than the ones that make the most sense for the traveler. When the cheapest fare is one with a tight connection and the traveler misses the connecting flight due to a delay on the earlier flight, everyone loses: the company, because it's impossible for an employee to be productively working while he/she is trying to figure out how to get to their destination; the employee, because he/she may miss an important meeting or event or be delayed in getting home; and the airline, because the traveler is less likely to fly that airline again if they can't solve the problem to the satisfaction of the individual.

Posted by: biztraveler | November 21, 2007 2:29 PM

I almost bought a ticket for a flight with only a 24 minute connection. Luckily I saw it in time, but I imagine there's plenty of other people who didn't. I also imagine there are a lot of people who figure if the airline is giving that flight as an option, the connection must be doable.

Posted by: Amie | November 21, 2007 5:28 PM

>>She had been sold a ticket that gave her 50 minutes to get from her gate in Newark to the other side of the terminal

Okay, but WHO sold her the ticket? A travel agent? A ticketing website?

It's the responsibility of travel agents and ticketing websites to warn shoppers of inappropriate connections.

I've found that some airline websites will hide itineraries that include a connection that is too short, while sites like cheaptickets will show them.

Posted by: stuckman | November 22, 2007 1:42 AM

While it is generally true that if you buy one ticket for both legs of a journey the airline has responsibility to get you to your ultimate destination even if you miss the connecting flight, that does not guarantee you will be on the next flight (depends on availability) nor that if you do make the connection your baggage will, too (if you are on vacation, needing to wait for bags can be a pain). I have also heard that if you bought your tickets through a third-party ticket service (e.g., online service not run by the airline), the airlines will not necessarily take responsibility if you miss your connection. And with code share flights, just because your ticket shows just one airline you may be on two different ones, with gates far apart at your connecting airport.

Posted by: Steve | November 23, 2007 11:31 AM

If you're a "road Warrior" who flies frequently this is something you know to check and go through the considerable effort it takes sometimes to find out. If you fly once a year on vacation or you're traveling by air to deal with a fmaily emergency for example, let's face it this issue is not top of mind. Quite simply if airlines sell the connection they should be responsible for getting you there.

I remember "back in the day" when airlines wouldn't sell me a connection I knew I could make from flying the routes 4 or 5 times a month; because they thought the connect time was too short!! When I walked up to the earlier flight they would just allow me to board.....

Posted by: CW | November 23, 2007 12:02 PM

I usually book online via Orbitz or an airlines website, and I always to my best to get a non-stop flight (not as difficult when you live in a hub city). However, if a connecting flight is required, I find the sites are very good at posting the connection times. Since connecting flights usually occur in another hub city, the airports are fairly large and I assume my arrival and departure gates will be as far apart as possible (for me, law of averages doesn't seem to apply here). I find an hour is usually a long enough time for me to disembark one plane, make a pit stop, and arrive at the departure gate 20-30 minutes before departure. When booking, I look for connection times between 1 and 2 hours. However if my choice is 45-50 mins or over two hours, I'll take my chances with the lesser.

Posted by: Kevin | November 23, 2007 1:24 PM

Many months ago I booked a flight from DCA to San Juan connecting in Miami on American. I intentionally selected flights that gave me about a 2 hour layover. Unfortunately, as airlines do, they changed the schedules in the interim and rebooked me with a 45 minute connection. We made it, but just barely. I had called American when I found out about the change (several months after it happened, since they didn't notify me) and they refused to move me to a more accommodating flight because of the fare bucket I was in.

Posted by: Liz | November 25, 2007 11:09 PM

Remember when "taking the train" was a valid option? Perhaps Amtrack could increase its service and make traveling more of a pleasant experience. These days it wouldn't take much to make thousands of travelers gladly switch from airplanes to trains. Add a few more attendants, bring back the Dining Car with something other than pre-packaged sandwiches a la 7-11 and even First Class Frequent Flyers would make the switch in a heartbeat. Make sure every seat gets good WIFI. Heck, if you live in a major city, it's a lot easier getting to the station than to the airport, you don't have to be there 1 hr before departure, and you can keep your shoes and clothes on when boarding! None of the seats on a train are 3 across and jammed together, you can use your electronic devices throughout the trip, you're not belted in place and can get up and walk around at any time. Sure the bags of peanuts and cans of soda aren't free, but c'mon! ALLL AABBOOAARRDD!

Posted by: Mainebser | November 30, 2007 10:12 AM

Kevin, did you ever see this about Orbitz? They sell impossible connection times too.

I always travel by Amtrak when going between school and home-for-the-holidays. You practically get a La-Z-Boy. And Mainebser, they do have a full Dining Car still (at least on the Capital Limited). The packaged 7-11-type stuff is in the Club Car.

Posted by: Maco | November 30, 2007 3:20 PM

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