Take offs & Land­ings

As com­pe­ti­tion for air­port times are be­ing eroded

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Alex McWhirter

Down to the Wire: Air­port min­i­mum con­nect­ing times. Plus new route news

The sub­ject of min­i­mum con­nect­ing times is one that is end­lessly dis­cussed by fre­quent fliers. Just what does the min­i­mum con­nect­ing time (MCT) mean when trans­fer­ring be­tween flights? Most peo­ple as­sume that it’s the stan­dard con­nect­ing time and that they have no need to worry. They also as­sume – wrongly in many cases – that if their flight is late the con­nec­tion will wait. Some be­lieve it’s the time you need to al­low when chang­ing planes, even if you are trav­el­ing with sep­a­rate tick­ets. Oth­ers think that it’s the guar­an­teed con­nect­ing time and should their con­nec­tion be missed, they can blame the air­line.

In fact, all four as­sump­tions are in­cor­rect. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion’s def­i­ni­tion:“A min­i­mum con­nect­ing time in­ter­val is the short­est time in­ter­val re­quired to trans­fer a pas­sen­ger and his/her lug­gage from one flight to a con­nect­ing flight. MCT in­ter­vals are also re­ferred to as‘of­fi­cial’or ‘stan­dard’MCTs.”

It adds:“MCTs must be ob­served by all tick­et­ing and reservations out­lets world­wide and also are used as in­put for au­to­mated reser­va­tion sys­tems.”How­ever, air­lines are free to de­vi­ate from MCTs in a given air­port if nec­es­sary, it says.

Best Laid Plans

All well and good. So why do missed con­nec­tions and de­layed lug­gage prob­lems oc­cur from time to time? It’s be­cause MCTs are de­vised for op­ti­mal travel con­di­tions, so the un­ex­pected can cause a lot of dis­rup­tion.

Our on­line fo­rum (busi­nesstrav­eller.com/dis­cus­sion) has seen much de­bate about the best and worst air­ports for con­nec­tions. Much will de­pend on in­di­vid­ual ex­pe­ri­ence, but what comes through clearly is that when bad weather slows down an air­port’s op­er­a­tions and causes de­lays to flights, the domino ef­fect can re­sult in tens of thou­sands of pas­sen­gers miss­ing their con­nec­tions.

So why can’t air­lines and air­ports ex­tend their MCTs to al­low for weather, op­er­a­tional de­lays and so on? It’s a sen­si­ble ques­tion but, sadly, some­thing that is un­likely to hap­pen as car­ri­ers, air­line al­liances, hub air­ports and re­gions com­pete ag­gres­sively for traf­fic.

When com­pe­ti­tion was less fierce, con­nec­tions were often timed so that pas­sen­gers had longer gaps be­tween flights. But to­day, air­ports and air­lines want to of­fer the speed­i­est con­nec­tions and short­est over­all jour­ney times. Among Euro­pean air­ports, for ex­am­ple, Lon­don Heathrow is a Oneworld hub so it will com­pete against Am­s­ter­dam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle (both Skyteam) and Frankfurt (Star Al­liance).

Hav­ing short MCTs means air­ports and air­lines can of­fer pas­sen­gers the short­est flight rout­ings, and gain a bet­ter po­si­tion on air­line web­sites and GDS sys­tems, such as Amadeus and Galileo. MCTs can there­fore be con­sid­ered a mar­ket­ing tool in the bat­tle for pas­sen­gers.

There’s an­other com­pelling rea­son as well for Euro­pean air­ports to squeeze con­nec­tion times.

Pre­vi­ously, they were com­pet­ing against one an­other; now it’s Europe against the Gulf. Hubs such as Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai are at­tract­ing more and more of the long-haul pas­sen­gers that Europe, not so long ago, would have con­sid­ered its birthright.

It means Europe wants to of­fer speedy trans­fers to In­dian trav­el­ers fly­ing be­tween Delhi and North Amer­ica, to Chinese na­tion­als en route from Bei­jing to Latin Amer­ica or Africa and to pas­sen­gers from South­east Asia go­ing be­tween Sin­ga­pore or Bangkok and the US East Coast. But re­cent years have seen Gulf car­ri­ers such as Emi­rates, Eti­had and Qatar Air­ways be­come more es­tab­lished in these re­gions. As a re­sult, MCTs are be­ing re­duced to the bare min­i­mum. In the most ex­treme cases, the mar­gin for de­lays is just a few min­utes.

It is true that within Europe, air­lines pad sched­ules to al­low for set­backs. For ex­am­ple, a Lon­don-Paris flight time (ter­mi­nal to ter­mi­nal) 35 years ago was 50 min­utes, whereas to­day it can be 90 min­utes. But air travel is so un­pre­dictable that al­low­ing ex­tra time is not al­ways the so­lu­tion.

Ex­cep­tions to the Rule

Across the At­lantic, North Amer­i­can air­ports face a dif­fer­ent set of sched­ul­ing chal­lenges when set­ting timeta­bles at ma­jor hub air­ports. For starters, there’s the sheer vol­ume of air­craft move­ments at ma­jor con­nect­ing points like At­lanta or Chicago. Then add to the mix the lo­gis­tics of pas­sen­gers mov­ing be­tween some­times-dis­tant con­courses and bag­gage be­ing trans­ferred from plane to plane. It’s easy to see how the task of lock­ing down the min­i­mum amount of time nec­es­sary to get from one flight to the next can get to be a sched­ul­ing Ru­bik’s cube.

In At­lanta, for ex­am­ple, the MCT for do­mes­tic flights is listed as 35 min­utes – that is, un­less your in­bound flight is aboard an A330, 747, 777, or an in­ter­na­tion­ally-con­fig­ured 767, then the min­i­mum con­nec­tion time is 50 min­utes. Caveats to ATL’s in­ter­na­tional MCT – which is a nom­i­nal 1 hour 25 min­utes – can vary de­pend­ing on what cities the flight is in­bound from. Chicago too has a list of over­seas de­par­ture air­ports that can im­pact its of­fi­cial 1 hour 15 minute MCT for in­ter­na­tional flights.

Air­ports say they sit down with their air­line cus­tomers and work out fea­si­ble MCTs. Many have con­nec­tion guides for pas­sen­gers on their web­sites. Many air­lines will have sim­i­lar ad­vice, too. But no air­line or air­port could ever guar­an­tee a con­nec­tion – avi­a­tion is too un­cer­tain for that.

Heathrow T5 has the air­port’s short­est MCT when you fly BA and con­nect in­ter­na­tion­ally, at only one hour (it’s 70 min­utes within T3, and 90 min­utes be­tween T5 and other ter­mi­nals). But how achiev­able is that if con­di­tions are less than per­fect?

BA says:“We al­ways rec­om­mend leav­ing suf­fi­cient time when con­nect­ing be­tween flights. We pro­vide our cus­tomers with con­nect­ing time in­for­ma­tion on ba.com to help plan their jour­neys.

MCTs are de­vised for op­ti­mal travel con­di­tions, so the un­ex­pected can cause a lot of dis­rup­tion

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