October 13, 2013
Question: I recently had to fly to Northern Ireland after my brother's death and had my travel agency make the reservation. I was booked on British Airways, arriving at 10 a.m. in one terminal and connecting to a flight at 11:15 a.m. in another. I made it with seconds to spare. On the return trip, the flight was 30 minutes late leaving, ran into air traffic upon arrival, and I missed the connection. The travel agency said the airlines set the times, and I've contacted British Airways and am awaiting a reply. Meanwhile, I'll avoid Heathrow in the future. Is there anything that could have been done about this?
Answer: Short of avoiding every major airport, including Heathrow, a consumer's best bet is to fly nonstop (sometimes not an option) or to be skeptical of short connecting windows if travels are routed through major airports.
Isn't that someone else's job? Yes, said the International Air Transport Assn., an airline trade association.
"Official MCT [minimum connect time] intervals (defined as the shortest time required to transfer a passenger and his luggage from one flight to a connecting flight) are determined by the airport's local MCT group, which consists of scheduled airlines and railways serving an airport or, if there is no such group, by the airport operating committee," said Perry Flint, an association spokesman.
Airlines can ask for exceptions, Flint said, adding, "It is the airline's responsibility to set realistic connecting times."
Using "realistic" and "airlines" in the same sentence might give you pause, but consider this: Airlines don't want to deal with misconnects any more than you do. (Don't worry — I'm not giving airlines a pass; I'm just saying it's in their best interest not to inflict more misery on passengers than what they already heap upon them in the normal course of business.)
How those connect times are determined results, Flint said, from "quite a detailed list of factors, including physical and operating characteristics of the airport, time to unload and deliver baggage to the sorting area, time to sort and transport baggage to the receiving carrier, time for passengers and baggage to be processed by the receiving carrier, time for passengers and baggage to clear customs and immigration controls, time for passengers to process to the receiving carrier" and more, Flint said.
The "and more," said Rick Seaney, co-founder of FareCompare.com, an air travel analyst, might include whether you are sitting in row 35, which means you must wait for 1 to 34 to get their junk out of the overhead bins and can often be the difference in making a connection.
A busy airport can mean time troubles, Seaney noted. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll get tripped up in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Beijing, Charlotte, N.C., Las Vegas, Houston and Paris — the top 10 busiest airports in terms of aircraft in 2012, according to the Airports Council International, but it should be a big, fat red flag. Likewise, be aware that the list of top 10 airports based on passenger counts has some old favorites — Atlanta, Beijing, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris and Dallas, but also London, Tokyo, Jakarta and Dubai. And this doesn't include cargo, which ranks Hong Kong and Memphis, Tenn., as the top two.
Bigger isn't always better, but it also isn't always an indicator of trouble. Note that New York and Miami don't show up on these lists, although recent news stories have told of lengthy, havoc-causing waits for immigration and customs.
Know too that weather can often hamper an airport's ability to move you through. Connecting flights can be significantly cheaper, which is always appealing to me, but I will automatically cross off any flight that connects in Chicago, Dallas or Houston in seasons in which meteorological extremes may occur, and I nix any connecting flight to anywhere during the holidays. Nonstop may be more expensive, but if you must be there, a nonstop (not to be confused with direct, which does have a stop but no change of plane and thus can be a problem) lessens at least one factor.
As with so many issues with airline travel, unless we're using a travel professional, we are now forced to become our own advocates, based on knowledge and information we don't necessarily have. But trust your instincts and pay attention to your comfort zone and book (or have your travel agent book) flights that have longer connect times. I did that recently on a flight from Buffalo, N.Y., connecting to L.A. through Chicago and was glad I did. There are worse things than spending a couple of extra hours in an airport, including spending the night there.
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