When Mike Conrad bought an airline ticket from Washington to Berlin, the last thing he considered was his connection in Frankfurt, Germany.
But the flight, booked through United Airlines and operated by Lufthansa — an arrangement known as a “codeshare” flight — gave him only 65 minutes on his return between the time he was scheduled to land in Frankfurt and when he would depart for Washington.
“I’m concerned about the connection,” says Conrad, a government worker who lives in Falls Church. “A United agent told me that I’d have plenty of time. But will I?”
Probably. Minimum connecting times, which are defined as the shortest interval required to transfer passengers and their luggage from one flight to a connecting flight, may be one of the airline industry’s least understood balancing acts. Although airlines go to great lengths to determine your ideal transit time, the system doesn’t always work. A few simple steps can ensure that you won’t miss your plane during the frenetic holiday travel season.
Conrad asked United via e-mail whether he had enough time. “Barring any unforeseen delays, your connect time should be sufficient,” a representative assured him.
But during busier air travel periods, such as the Christmas and New Year holidays, the system is tested — often with undesirable results. Philadelphia attorney Jeanette Viala recalls a flight from Marseilles, France, back to Philadelphia via Frankfurt, also on Lufthansa, that experienced a connection-time glitch.
“The Marseilles flight left at about 10 a.m. and was scheduled to arrive in Frankfurt around 12:30 p.m. We’d have about 90 minutes to make our next flight,” she says. “Tight, but doable.”
Or not. The airline rebooked her on a 6:45 a.m. flight because it determined that the minimum connection time wouldn’t be enough. But it failed to notify her, she says. “So when we arrived at the Marseilles airport for the 10 a.m. flight, they wouldn’t let us on board,” she remembers. She spent an extra two days in France before she could catch another flight home.
It helps to understand how minimum connecting times are computed and your rights if your trip is interrupted because of a miscalculation.
Airport connection times are initially set by a group of scheduled airlines or by an airport operating committee. They pass the recommended minimums along to the International Air Transport Association and the airline reservations systems.
Airlines also adjust their minimum connection times on a flight-by-flight basis. They describe this fine-tuning as a carefully orchestrated process involving multiple divisions within an airline.
“Our engineering department will do a study,” says Michelle Mohr, a US Airways spokeswoman. “They work closely with our scheduling group and our airport customer service team.”
Minimum connection times must be fairly accurate. Underestimate them, and passengers or their luggage won’t make the flight. Overestimate them, and air travelers face a long wait in a terminal.
And circumstances can change. For example, construction in a terminal might cause a slowdown in passengers’ transit from one terminal to the next, requiring longer minimum connection times.