Help! My connection time was too short and I wasn’t allowed to fly!

When Kenneth Black’s flight on China Southern Airlines, booked through Travelocity, has a too-short connection time, he finds himself unable to travel. Yet neither the airline nor Travelocity is willing to help him get his money back. Can our advocates straighten out this fiasco?

Question: I am on active duty in the U.S. Army, currently stationed in South Korea. Yesterday I was supposed to fly from Incheon, South Korea, to Bangkok via Zhengzhou, China, on China Southern Airlines for the beginning of a military leave. I booked the trip a month ago through Travelocity and received a confirmation of my itinerary telling me “everything was good to go.”

But when I arrived at the airport, I found out that this wasn’t so.

As I was getting ready to check in, I was told to step off to the side to speak to the manager on duty, who informed me that my connection time (70 minutes) was too short, and she would not check me in due to airline policy. I asked her what I needed to do, but she responded with a blank look and a “you figure it out” attitude. I was told to call Travelocity and work it out with them.

I called Travelocity three separate times over the course of two hours, and one of their agents called the airline each time. The only option I was given was to book a later flight, but I was told that I would then be charged an additional $550 to $600 for an issue I had not created.

Initially I agreed to buy a new ticket, but that brought even more problems, so I finally canceled my whole trip at the last minute.

Related story:   Adieu, troubleshooter

I’m not sure who to point to the finger at. I believe the airline shouldn’t have issued the ticket, and Travelocity shouldn’t have let me book it. I’ve issued a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Better Business Bureau (BBB) and the Attorney General of Texas.

I’m now screwed out of leave for a trip I didn’t take, not to mention that I’m stuck here for the holidays. Can you help me get a full refund for my ticket from Travelocity or China Southern Airlines? — Kenneth Black, Incheon, South Korea

Answer: Ouch! How annoying that after serving your country overseas (for which all of us thank you), you didn’t get to take your scheduled leave because of bad customer service.

Unfortunately, you’re correct that the airline shouldn’t have issued the ticket, and Travelocity shouldn’t have let you book it. Each airport has its own rules about minimum connection times (MCTs in air travel parlance), and the Zhengzhou has a longer MCT requirement than other airports. It requires an MCT of 120 minutes, and your connection time was 70 minutes.

But neither the airline nor Travelocity handled your situation correctly. No one should rise to the rank of airline manager without understanding that giving passengers blank looks and “you figure it out” attitudes at check-in is not an appropriate way to resolve customer service problems. And Travelocity first should have booked you a ticket with the correct MCT, and when it didn’t, its agents should have helped you get a new ticket at Travelocity’s expense rather than telling you that it would charge you for the cost of resolving its own booking error.

Related story:   This Pegasus clipped her wings, but there's a happy ending

When both the airline and Travelocity refused to help you, you first posted in our forum, where our forum advocates suggested that you write polite letters to executives of China Southern Airlines and Travelocity explaining your situation. (Executive contacts for Travelocity (owned by Expedia) are available on our website; contact information for China Southern Airlines is pending as of this writing.)

When this course of action did not result in any responses from either company, our advocates reached out to both the airline and Travelocity.

China Southern Airlines never responded to our contacts either, but Travelocity issued you a full refund, including $25 that was originally withheld from the refund as a “flight change fee,” as well as a $100 single-use coupon for a future hotel booking through Travelocity as a one-time courtesy “in recognition of your service to our country.”

Jennifer Finger

Jennifer is the founder of KeenReader, an Internet-based freelance editing operation, as well as a certified public accountant. She is a senior writer for Read more of Jennifer's articles here.

  • sirwired

    Is it even possible for a travel agent to book an itinerary that violates the MCT set by the airline? This is smelling more like an airline issue (offering an itinerary that violated the MCT) than the TA’s fault.

    (I will mention that the FAA was probably not an agency to complain to; I’m not sure their jurisdiction extends to travel agents who book tickets on foreign airlines where the itinerary has nothing to do with the US.)

  • BubbaJoe123

    If you read the forums, it appears that (at least at the time), the MCT for that airport that CZ was using internally (including for booking tickets on their own website) was longer than the MCT that they had published to the GDS, so TAs could book tickets with a connect time that was shorter than CZ would actually allow. Pretty clear it was the airline’s fault.

  • James

    You might also contact American Airlines, who bought a stake in China Southern.

  • Lindabator

    unfortunately, yes – but had he booked thru a REAL travel agent, the agent (if they were any good) would never have suggested it. I run into this all the time, and just schedule each segment separately to ensure a long enough connection time.

  • PsyGuy

    That may be true for you, but we’ve seen ample times when “real” TA’s don’t know how to do anything.

  • Alan Gore

    The FAA can’t help you with an airline problem in China. Only the IRS and the DEA have worldwide police powers.

  • ctporter

    I worry that if the segments are booked separately how does the airline treat the passenger, are they a “no show” if the first segment has too much of a delay? I always try to book a LONG layover but even then it might not be enough time. My latest trip from West VA to Seattle had a 1hr 45min layover in Atlanta (not the 40 minute connection that was cheaper), but due to the delay getting out of CRW in West VA my connection time was shortened to almost nothing due to weather issues in West VA, especially considering getting from the end of D to the end of E concourse in ATL!

  • BubbaJoe123

    Huh? So, you’d schedule a connection much longer than published MCT? Based on what? Do your clients enjoy spending an extra 4-8 hours in transit?

  • BubbaJoe123

    It was an airline issue. If you read the commentary in the forums, CZ’s published MCT for the GDSes for that airport is shorter than the one they use internally, and which governs bookings on their website.

  • sirwired

    Depending on the situation, yes, an experienced agent absolutely will schedule connections longer (often much longer) than the MCT.

    Take this case: Any agent would be able to spot that a 70-minute International-to-International connection, anywhere, is a terrible idea, and should rarely, if ever, book it, even if the system allows it.

    For another example: Delta allows a 45 minute MCT for connecting from a domestic flight in JFK on to KLM. Would you EVER allow, say, a honeymooning couple to book such a ticket? That’s just begging for heartache and tears, and a lovely 24 hours (at least!) stuck in the airport. Better to take an earlier flight to get to JFK and cool heels for a few hours than miss that once-a-day transoceanic.

  • BubbaJoe123

    This isn’t a honeymooning couple, it was a single traveler, and my recollection from the forums is that he would have made it just fine, had he been allowed to travel.

    It’s also a connection through a smaller airport in China (not PEK or PVG), so it seems unlikely that most US agents would have that much ready familiarity with it to know whether it’s viable or not.

  • sirwired

    I don’t know of any airport, anywhere in the world, where 70 minutes arrival-to-departure for an international connection would be a good idea. Possible, yes, but not something to rely on, at all.

    If the connecting flight you are going to miss is some little domestic hop that runs every couple of hours, and you are willing to gamble that they’ll be an open seat on the next one if you miss it, then it’s okay. But most international flights only run once a day, if that, and missing it because of a minor departure delay a couple time zones away can be a disaster.

  • BubbaJoe123

    For most airports around the world, an I-to-I connection is not materially different from a D-to-I connection, since you stay in the transfer zone airside and don’t have to go through security or immigration. The US is unusual like that.

    If it didn’t involve a terminal change, I’d do I-I with that kind of connect time in lots of places without concern.

  • sirwired

    The boarding door usually closes sooner for international, and luggage transfers usually take longer. And again, it’s not just the possibility of missing the flight; it’s how long that’s going to delay you vs. more-frequent service.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Again, depends on the airport, weather, etc. I wouldn’t do 70 minutes at LHR with a terminal change. 70 minutes SQ to SQ at SIN? Sure.

  • cscasi

    Absolutely! As a matter of fact, my wife and I have experienced the 50 minute connect time Lufthansa allows at the Frankfurt, Germany airport. Problem is that many of the flights land and are parked on an apron and not a gate. One has to wait for the stairs to be put into position ot offload. Then, wait for a bus to come, fill up and wait until everyone is off before taking you to the terminal. Then, when you get to the terminal, fight the crowd getting off the bus. Then, get to the connecting gate which can be in one of three concourses which can take from 5 to 15 minutes walking time and even more if you have to take a train between the concourses and then walk from there to the departure gate. Most of the time one can barely make it (realize that they close the gate ten minutes before departure). But, if the flight you came in on is a few minutes late, guess what? You absolutely don’t have enough time to make connections. By the way, one also may have to go through security again and if coming from a Non Schengen country to a Schengen country, passport control, plus security. Let’s see how well you do in fifty minutes.

  • cscasi

    Besides, the FAA deals with Aviation Safety and not travel agents or whether you make your conneection on time, need compensation, etc. That falls in line with DOT.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.