When Mike Conrad bought an airline ticket from Washington, D.C., 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.
Falls Church, Va. "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.
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, N.C., where the terminals are closer together, the same connection can be done in just 75 minutes.
Lufthansa's minimum connect times in Frankfurt vary between 45 and 90 minutes, according to airline spokeswoman Christina Semmel. "Usually 45 minutes is the absolute minimum authorized by the airport," she says.
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.
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 its reservation system.
You shouldn't expect it to cover your hotel expenses and meals, particularly if the delay is caused by events beyond its control, such as your inability to get from one terminal to the next at a reasonable speed. The airline's obligations are outlined in its contract of carriage, the legal agreement between you and your airline, or its customer service plan, which is a non-binding warranty. Both of these documents can be found on your airline's website.
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 either ensure that someone will help you make a transfer, or 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."
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money and Hassle)" (National Geographic). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, which he answers as quickly as possible, but because of a backlog of cases, your story may not be published for several months.)