Airplanes of the airline Lufthansa are parked at the airport in Duesseldorf, Germany.

Federico Gambarini, Associated Press - Ap

Travel Troubleshooter: How much connection time is enough?

  • November 22, 2013 - 1:24 PM

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 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 United agent told me that I’d have plenty of time. But will I?”

Probably. Minimum connecting times, 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. Airlines go to great lengths to determine your ideal transit time, but 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.

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 determined 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 adjust their minimum connection times on a flight-by-flight basis, a carefully orchestrated process, they say, 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.”

Missed connections can happen, nevertheless. The best way to minimize the possibility 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 can cancel your ticket and secure 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 sitting closer to the front of the plane may increase the probability of making 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 the airline to cover your hotel expenses and meals, particularly if the delay is caused by events beyond its control. 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 understand that some passengers won’t be able to make a connection because of mobility problems. If that is your situation, they recommend contacting their special services desk, which helps travelers with special needs. They can either ensure that someone will help you make a transfer, or they’ll reschedule you at no extra charge.


Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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