Preparing To Miss A Flight Connection

The husband and I are traveling soon with some uncomfortably tight flight connections. They didn’t start out so tight, but after three changes in the airline’s schedule, they ended up that way.

Heading into a situation like that, we take the Boy Scout approach. It’s best to be prepared to miss the connection.

Our first leg is from Bradley to Atlanta. The second is from Atlanta to Seattle, with 46 minutes in between. If all goes well, we and our luggage will make the trip smoothly. But 46 minutes doesn’t leave much room for error.

What if our flight departs late from Bradley or sits on the pavement waiting for a gate at Atlanta? What options will we have if we miss the connecting flight?

Answering that requires a little research. The airline may rebook us automatically when the computer system realizes that we’ve missed the connection. But the computer may not give us the best option. It’s programmed to fill the planes and smooth the overall flow of passengers, not necessarily to make us happy.

What we need is data – research on what alternate flights are available at what times so we can ask the gate agent at the airport for exactly what we want. Many business travelers carry laptop computers or Blackberries, which allow them to figure these things out on the fly. Most of us, though, need to write down the flight information in advance.

First, I want to know how likely we are to have a problem. The FlightStats site tells me that the Bradley to Atlanta flight, Delta 694, has a very good on-time rating. But it also tells me that on the very day I checked, the flight arrived 32 minutes late.

So you never know.

Next I go to the airline’s Web site and look at the flight schedule. Turns out, Delta’s next direct flight to Seattle won’t leave until nearly four hours after the potentially missed connection

Four hours in the Atlanta airport is a little too much for me. A quick Chik-fil-A sandwich is all I need there. But what else can we do?

Well, I can check for Delta flights from Atlanta to Seattle that are not direct. Even with an additional connection, we might get there faster than we would after waiting four hours in Atlanta. And I can check Delta’s partner airline, Northwest.

It seems Northwest has no direct flights, but it does have a connection through Detroit, leaving only an hour later than our scheduled connection. If we took it, we could get to Seattle earlier than if we waited for the next direct Delta flight. (Of course, having another connection risks missing another connection.)

I could also look to see whether any other major carriers have direct flights, and if they do we could ask Delta to endorse our tickets over to that airline. The Big Six airlines are all able to do this, whether the other airline is a partner or not. (Southwest does not endorse tickets, or accept them from other airlines.)

An airline’s willingness to endorse a ticket to a competitor  may depend on a lot of factors, including the fare class, the length of time the passenger would have to wait, and how full the airline’s subsequent flights look. But it’s worth asking.

And it’s simply more effective to ask “Can you put me on Flight 541 at 11:20 a.m.?” than to ask “What can you do for me?”


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