How to pull off a short flight connection, and when to give yourself more time


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Holiday travel is stressful. Everyone on the freeway and at the airport has “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” vibes, driving and walking and panicking like it’s the end of the world. So while I was booking my flight after a holiday weekend, I froze when I saw Delta offer me a connecting flight that was departing just 45 minutes after I would be landing at my first stop of the trip.

I imagined the scene: Me, sweating, heaving my carry-on bag from the overhead bin into the aisle and out the cabin as fast as the, well, slow-moving line of people would allow. A mad dash would follow. My carry-on tumbling behind me as I power-walk-slash-run through the crowded, endless terminals. Perhaps there was a five-minute delay at takeoff that we never made up for, or we had to circle the airport from above to wait for the runway to clear? Doesn’t matter what the lag was — now I’m dodging strollers and roller bags to make my connecting flight. I make it, just in time. Or maybe I don’t.

Did Delta really wish that stress upon me? Did Delta think I’d make a flight with such a short layover in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL), one of the world’s busiest? Apparently, yes, the Delta employee assured me as I considered booking my flight. She said that people love those tight connections and swear by them. As someone who loves to get to the airport two to three hours early, I couldn’t relate.

But I made the reservation, with a 45-minute layover in Atlanta between flights, anyway. Should I regret my decision? According to experts, it depends — on the airport, how I booked my trip and my flight route.

When you’re buying flights, here are the scenarios when an allotted layover window is acceptable. (These apply to travel within the United States.)

Less than one hour

My 45-minute layover is so crazy, it just might work. That’s because Delta has the data to back up its itinerary.

“If they say 45 minutes, 45 minutes is not an issue, because we have the intelligence,” says Steve Mayars, director of customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Mayers says that Delta has the data to see how many people have missed connecting flights and have calculated departure times accordingly. In America, airlines rent out gate space from airports and are in charge of gate allocation, determining how many flights will run through each gate. Because they know their schedules better than anyone, it’s the airlines that set minimum connection times (a term they shorten to MCT) for their flights.

“When an airline makes a decision to connect you with a flight that has a 45-minute connection, it probably has you in the same concourse, or a concourse over,” Mayers says. “It knows that you will have enough time to get to your gate.”

You may be offered even shorter connection times if you’re passing through a small airport like the Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), where passengers can travel among gates much faster than a major airport such as Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW), where you need to take a Skylink train between terminals. That being said, not every large airport will be a problem. At San Francisco’s SFO, some airlines still schedule minimum connection times as short as 30 minutes.

Mayers stresses that if you have time-bound plans, such as arriving at a destination to get on a cruise ship, book a flight with plenty of time to make up for delayed or canceled flights. Mayers sees a lot of customers miss cruises because of issues with connecting flights.

Although the airline is confident you’ll make a short connection it approved if everything goes according to plan, that doesn’t account for the unpredictable. You can’t plan for weather, aircraft maintenance or freak accidents. I recently missed a connecting flight to Japan because someone forgot to pick up my airplane’s flight attendants the morning of our trip, delaying our departure by more than an hour. Booking a connecting flight with less than an hour to spare still comes with risks.

Two hours

Mayers recommends two hours as a standard buffer between flights to be safe. This gives you a cushion in case things go wrong during your journey.

You’ll definitely want at least a two-hour window if you’ve booked a “hacker fare,” as opposed to flying with the same airline your entire trip. A hacker fare entails flying with one carrier for the first leg of your trip, then switching to another airline for the second leg. In that case, Mayers encourages travelers to pad layovers.

When you’re planning your trip and assessing layover times, go online to see data on your particular flight. Most flights are regularly scheduled and not one-off occurrences, so you can see how on-time or delayed they’ve been historically.

“There are a couple of tools that you can use out there to look at the flight number for the flight that they want to take,” says Mayars. “Use Kayak, use FlightAware — use all of [those websites] to look at your flight and see if there is a commonality in the gates of the flights that they’re taking.”

Once you’ve determined the general promptness (or tardiness) of your flight, make sure you’ll be able to get from your first flight to the next in your allotted time span by looking at the airport map. Even if you booked your flight with one carrier, it may use a partner airline to get you from Point A to Point B. Your first flight may be on Delta and the next on Aeromexico, or go from American Airlines to a British Airways. Those carriers might not operate in the same part of the airport.

“Look to see how close they are, and if they are farther apart and you’re not comfortable with that, add another half an hour to an hour” to your layover, Mayers says.

Three hours

Travelers with special needs or disabilities who require wheelchair services don’t have the luxury of cutting connection times close. Mayers notes that with an aging population of travelers, and a limited amount of resources to support them, wait times are more unpredictable for wheelchair services.

“You have to wait at the gate for the wheelchair assistance to come and get you. However, they don’t have an unlimited amount of wheelchairs and wheelchair pushers to push you,” he says. “So you could be waiting for 45 minutes for a wheelchair.”

Call your airline well in advance of your flight to request wheelchair service, but know there’s still a chance you may have to face delays. To be safe, plan three hours for your connection.

Four hours

Everything changes when you’re traveling internationally. Once you fly into the United States, you have to pass through Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and another security checkpoint, plus recheck any luggage, before you head to your next flight. Mayers warns that CBP has been facing labor issues that are resulting in a slowdown for airport activity.

“Wait times coming through CBP can be upwards of two hours,” he says. “Have a four-hour window in any international ports coming into the United States to connect to your next flight, because you can be waiting for two hours to get through security if you are not an American citizen.”

If you think you can outsmart long lines at customs using services such as Global Entry or Mobile Passport, note that rules fluctuate. Line-cutting services available to you once might not be in place the next time. Don’t rely on the potential of a shorter line.

Regarding layover times, all bets are off when you’re traveling overseas, where every airport and airline has its own set of rules. Research thoroughly before booking your connecting flights abroad to make sure you get where you need to go without disaster.

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