Are You Smarter Than an Airline?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

If an airline sells you a ticket, you can trust it to have built in the right amount of time for making the connection, right?

Don't count on it.

The airlines have no desire to mess with you. Your missed connection is a major headache and potentially a major expense for them, too. But unlike you, the airlines have competing goals.

First, many customers choose a flight because the itinerary's travel time appears to be shorter. Thus, "longer connection times can be a significant disadvantage" when trying to attract customers, said Robert A. Shumsky, an associate professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business.

Second, many airlines operate a "hub and spoke" system, meaning they transport customers from around the country into and out of a hub airport, and from there connect to various destinations. To fill flights at the hub airport, planes have to wait for passengers from various other flights. "Longer connection times mean that airplanes spend more time on the ground waiting for passengers, which leads to lower aircraft utilization and thus less revenue per airplane," Shumsky said, explaining why airlines have an incentive to schedule tight connections.

Bottom line: Your judgment, because you have only one goal, might be better than that of the experts.

-- C.L.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company