Do you have enough time to make your flight connection?

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By Christopher Elliott

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 — allowed him only 65 minutes on his return between the scheduled landing time in Frankfurt and his departure 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?”

Understanding minimum connecting times in air travel

Probably. The airline industry’s least understood balancing acts may include minimum connecting times, which define the shortest interval needed to transfer passengers and their luggage from one flight to a connecting flight. 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 undergoes testing, often yielding 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.

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Computation and passenger rights

Understanding how minimum connecting times are computed and knowing your rights if your trip is interrupted due to a miscalculation can be helpful.

A group of scheduled airlines or an airport operating committee initially sets airport connection times. 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.

An essential travel consideration

In Philadelphia, US Airways gives passengers arriving on international flights in the A terminal at least 90 minutes to transit through customs and catch a domestic flight leaving from the F terminal.

In Charlotte, where the terminals are closer together, passengers can complete the same connection in just 75 minutes

Lufthansa’s minimum connect times in Frankfurt vary between 45 and 90 minutes, according to airline spokeswoman Christina Semmel. She says the airport usually authorizes an absolute minimum of 45 minutes.

At this time of year, perhaps more than at any other, airlines pay close attention to their minimum connection times, concerned that passengers may have to spend too much time waiting in a terminal or, worse, might miss their flight.

Even when the minimums are reasonable, missed connections can happen. The best way to avoid that is to review your flight itinerary — preferably before you book it. If you’re using a travel agent, you can ask for a longer connection, but the request needs to be made before you reserve your flight. Remember that under the Transportation Department’s 24-hour rule, you still have the option of canceling your ticket and securing a full refund on most flights, as long as you notify the airline within a day of making your reservation. (Here’s what to do when your flight gets delayed or canceled.)

Strategies for tight connections

Traveling with less luggage and securing a seat closer to the front of the plane may ensure that you’ll make a tight connection. But if you happen to miss your next plane, your airline will rebook you on the next available flight, as long as your itinerary is connected in the airline’s reservation system.

You shouldn’t expect the airline to cover your hotel expenses and meals, especially if events beyond its control, like your inability to move from one terminal to another quickly, cause the delay. You can find the airline’s obligations outlined in its contract of carriage, which is the legal agreement between you and your airline, or in its customer service plan, which is a non-binding warranty. Both of these documents are available on your airline’s website. (Here’s a story about a couple who were held up during their honeymoon.)

Airlines have a lot of confidence in their minimum connection times. But they understand that some passengers won’t be able to make a connection because of mobility problems. If you need a little extra time, they recommend contacting their special services desk, which helps air travelers with special needs. They can ensure that someone will help you make a transfer. Alternatively, they’ll reschedule you on a later flight at no extra charge.

Berlin-bound passenger Conrad hasn’t asked for help yet and is hoping that United will live up to its promise.

“I’ve bought travel insurance,” he says. “Just in case.”

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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