Depending on the airline, minimum connection time can lead to problems
If you have a tight flight connection — but one that adheres to the published minimum connection time — will your airline take care of you if you still miss your flight? For Stephanie Mendenhall, the answer was “no.”
The Elliott.org advocacy team thought the answer should have been “yes.” So we investigated Stephanie’s case of a missed flight and discovered a few facts that might help you the next time you think, “Hey, I wonder if one hour is enough time to connect in Frankfurt?” (The answer, as they say in Deutschland, is: “Nein!”) Mostly, it’s a lesson about minimum connection times and an airline’s responsibility to help you when the minimums are not enough.
I realize the topic of minimum connection times is technical, something you might see covered on one of those aviation fan blogs. But the topic comes up more often than you think, even among us civilians. It’s worth a deep dive into the topic if you’re planning a long overseas trip on multiple carriers.
This minimum connection time was wrong — or was it?
Mendenhall booked a flight from Savannah, Ga., to Dubrovnik on American Airlines last year. The legs from Savannah to Philadelphia and Philadelphia to Frankfurt, Germany, were on American; her flight from Frankfurt to Dubrovnik was on Croatia Airlines.
Mendenhall’s travel agent booked a return flight with a one-hour stopover in Frankfurt.
“My travel agent assured me the one-hour connection met travel industry standards,” says Mendenhall.
Perhaps it did, but it didn’t meet her realistic standards. Even though the Croatia Air flight arrived on time, she had to take two buses, go through security twice and passport control once. Frankfurt is a labyrinth. I know because it used to be my hometown airport many years ago.
Mendenhall missed her flight. She says she was “forced” to buy a new ticket for $1,700.
A side note: I hear a lot of passengers saying they were “forced” to buy a ticket. I imagine some airline yield management types reading this site and thinking, “How do we force people to buy tickets? We need that!”
The minimum connection time dilemma
Minimum connection times are set by a joint airport and airline commission and are based on a variety of factors, as I explained in this story. Airlines and travel agents rely on minimum connection times to make flight itinerary decisions every day. In fact, most major reservations systems have minimum connection times preloaded, so when you try to make a reservation that doesn’t leave you enough time, it stops you.
In Mendenhall’s case, she suspected the hour she had in Frankfurt wasn’t enough. But the airline’s systems and her travel agent assured her it wouldn’t be a problem.
Of course, you don’t want to wait until after you’re holding your airline tickets to start asking about minimum connection times. You want to do it long before it becomes an issue — either when you’re making your plans or within 24 hours of making the reservation. You usually have 24 hours to cancel your ticket with no penalty.
A few problems with this minimum connection times case
This was not the perfect case. First, Mendenhall decided to take matters into her own hands and booked a walk-up fare back to Savannah on United Airlines. She could have — and should have — waited for American Airlines to take care of her. And she should have also asked her travel agent to help.
American quickly refunded the unused half of her ticket, but Mendenhall wanted it to cover the difference between the refund and the walk-up fare, which came to about $900. Mendenhall’s flights were connected on the same itinerary, so she was covered. But she wanted to get home fast, so she bought a new ticket.
She also filed a claim on her travel insurance policy, which includes trip interruption coverage. The insurance company rejected her claim.
But my sympathies are with Mendenhall. How was she supposed to know about connecting flights and allowing her agent and airline to help? No one told her. She’s just a civilian, trying to get home to Savannah. She probably knows that she goofed, but at the time, her decision to book a new United Airlines flight seemed reasonable.
Resolving this minimum connections times case
The Elliott.org advocate, Dwayne Coward, recommended that Mendenhall contact her travel agent, AAA. We list the names, numbers and email address of AAA on this site. AAA reached out to American Airlines and the airline said it couldn’t do anything for her. She would be liable for the $900 difference since it was her decision to fly on United.
Next, Dwayne reached out to American on her behalf. It reviewed her itinerary and said it appeared she never checked in for her return flight. And yet her baggage had been checked from Dubrovnik to Savannah, so something didn’t quite line up.
“Why didn’t she work with the travel agency?” our American contact wondered.
In the end, American agreed to offer Mendenhall $900 worth of flight vouchers, a solution with which she says she is happy.
For the rest of us, it’s a cautionary tale about minimum connection times. Elliott.org receives many requests for help from passengers who press right up against those minimum connection times and then miss their international flights. It’s not easy navigating an international airport. Don’t rely on your ability to make your connection solely based on the absolute minimum connection time. You can pull up the airport’s website on your device and get a sense of its complexity in order to estimate the amount of connection time that you will need.
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 weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.