Do we need a standard for holding flights for late connections?

by Janice Hough on July 30, 2009

We’ve all been there. Your first flight is late, and that connection time seems shorter and shorter. And you hope against hope that maybe the second flight is also delayed, or that the airline will be merciful and hold the plane. But will they?

Sometimes, it works. Sometimes the connection is at a nearby gate, sometimes you race through the terminal to make the plane with seconds to spare, and sometimes the second flight is so delayed you have time for a full meal and shopping in the airport before you board.

Of course, sometimes it’s not such a happy outcome. It’s bad enough when your original flight is long gone, but the absolutely most maddening result is arriving to see the plane sitting there, but the door shut. And the flight marked “closed.”

Unfortunately, in my experience too, “closed” means “closed.” And begging usually doesn’t help. Nor, according to my clients, does crying and/or screaming.

Yesterday in Denver, while waiting for a gate-checked carryon from a late United Express commuter flight, I noticed a lot of people trying that crying and screaming option. Many, but not all flights had been delayed, and it appeared somewhat random as to who had gotten lucky and who was stuck.

One man had missed the 10-minute cutoff by two minutes, but it might has well have been 10 hours.

Later, a client told me that her delayed flight had pulled into a Denver gate with exactly 11 minutes to spare. They raced off the place to a nearby gate but were told they had missed the cutoff by three minutes. They had to wait four hours for the next available flight to San Francisco. And both she and her husband are elite level frequent fliers.

I have heard stories like this from clients and friends with various airlines, not just United. Every once in a while, however, I do hear of airlines holding a plane for some amount of time. Especially when it’s the last flight of the day.

This holding the last flight out isn’t a given, however, as many veterans of “distressed passenger rates” at often dumpy airport hotels can attest.

International connections and first and business class passengers also seem to have priority for holding flights, but again, this is also not a given.

On a recent Air Canada flight from Vancouver to San Francisco, the captain announced we were waiting for some delayed international passengers, all, as it turned out, in coach. The plane departed 25 minutes late, and was able to make up about half of that.

I am sure, well, I hope anyway, that there is some method to the madness. On the flip side, holding a flight for a connection may in turn mean passengers on the second flight are late for THEIR connections.

So what’s the solution? My personal suggestion would be some short period, perhaps 10 minutes, where an airline would hold a flight. Or at least be willing to open the closed door. As opposed to passengers who have just arrived at the airport late, it’s not as if connecting passengers haven’t checked in – the airline KNOWS where they are.

I do realize this could open up a whole new can of worms. Because then people who were 11 minutes late would complain, and such a system would only work for online connections. It’s unreasonable to expect say, American Airlines to hold a flight for Delta passengers. And probably unrealistic for code-share partners to have enough information.

In addition, anticipating unhappy comments from airline employees, yes, I know, a potential 10 minute delay could result in an airline losing their takeoff slot. But planes are delayed all the time for non-safety reasons such as baggage and catering.

What do you think, Tripso readers? Do you like the system as is? Do you think more planes should be held? Or less? Would love to see your ideas in the comments.

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  • John

    Janice …. While I hate the current system, especially since I fly into Newark a lot, I can’t see your system working any better. Holding the plane makes a second flight late compounding the problem and it might not be just one flight. One commuter plane coming in late with 60 people on it might be head to 20 or 30 different flights so one delay has cause 20 to 30 additional delays.

    How do you handle the person who doesn’t, or can’t, move quickly between flights? Do you still hold the plane? Even for the person who may have stopped?

    While the idea sounds great, the problems it would cause within the air system and upset passengers, doesn’t seem to justify the hold

    Just my thoughts

  • Bill

    there used to be a courtesy of holding flights for 10 minutes or so when the airline knew there would be misconnects due to ATC, weather, or mechanical delays. but now, as we all are learning, gate agents are receiving bonuses if they hit a certain percentage of on-time departures. it doesnt matter that schedules are padded and a 10 minute departure delay can still result in a flight arriving at its destination 30 minutes early – the gate agents (and supervisors) on several airlines are being measured on how many of their flights go out on time. more and more i have seen supervisors standing at the plane’s door saying we have to get this flight out now.

    furthermore, i think with the overbooking of planes these days, misconnects are being factored into getting others out on a flight. so yes, a plane may be sitting there, but it is going to say closed and they wont open the door because they have given your seat to someone else already.

    as we all know – on-time flights is a somewhat artificial number. airlines keep increasing the flight times between cities – and this padding is adding to the problem. while an airline used to be about taking care of its passengers, it is now about looking good in the stats to attract customers (look at US Airways – has that airline really moved from worst to last? have you been on a US Airways flight recently? they are still a LCC dressed up as a mainline carrier. but they have the data that their flights are on time) the airlines need to stop rewarding agents for getting so many flights out on time – and instead just increase their base pay and staffing so that all flights can operate smoothly and thus improve on-time operations.

    i should be the CEO of a major carrier…

  • mike kerry

    It’s funny almost, with the sophisticated computer systems we now have in the travel industry that will rebook you to a later flight while your on a flight that can’t find an open gate at O’hare or another major hub can’t figure out which people would be delayed and somehow figure out if a few more minutes will impact other schedules. Your correct on imposing some artificial deadline. But isn’t that what the human mind is for?
    I’ll never forget sitting in O’Hare one Sunday night when a flight from Denver was late and the gate agent asked the manager to hold the flight for 7 connecting passengers that were going to Providence. All they had to do was walk from C22 to C24. The manager said close it up, and not more than a minute later 5 people were standing in front of the gate with 2 more behind them momentarily. They were told they would be put on the next flight that got in at 11:30 am Monday rather than Sunday night. And the supervisor/manager had been told that they were just a few minutes away. I heard lots of yelling as I sat there waiting for my next flight. I guess they used to call it customer service, now the customers are just nothing more than a pain in the rear.

  • Cliff Woodrick

    I am a 75 year young retired naval officer who moves slowly. Therefore I plan on an hour and a half to two hours between flights. Only ONCE have I missed the connection because we waited two hours on the tarmac for a gate to open. The airline paid me $300 and gave me meal tickets plus a first class ticket because I did NOT scream at the poor young lady who was being berated by others. This was not her fault and as we state in the military “Shit Happens” so let us work out a solution. I arrived home three hours late. I also request assistance between gates / terminals at the airports. Only once I was informed that this was not available.

  • Matthew from NYC

    My inclination is not to impose a standard. Compounding delays just adds chaos to the system. Personally, when I have to book a connecting flight, I make my own judgments about how long I should allow for a connection – I never take what the airline allows without considering the layout of the airport and the likelihood of weather delays, and whether I have to clear customs and immigration to make the connection. I generally don’t accept a connection of less than 60 minutes for a domestic connection and 120 minutes for an international. I would rather sit in the gate area for an hour than watch my flight take off. I, personally, have never, and am extremely unlikely, to try the screaming or crying option. I might, however, express exasperation if my connecting flight leaves early without me.

  • DaveS

    It think it’s a good idea to try to hold the last flight of the day, when possible, especially if it’s to an airport where people don’t make many connections out. For example, Wichita, an airport i use frequently, seems to receive a lot of those flights at night. I guess the airlines like to park a plane here for the night. Virtually nobody connects to another airline in Wichita, so holding a Wichita flight isn’t going to create more problems down the line for passengers.

    Otherwise, I think that an official standard will create as many, if not more, problems than it solves. That doesn’t mean personnel shouldn’t use common sense when they know several passengers are about to arrive.

  • Frank

    I have heard stories like this from clients and friends with various airlines, not just United. Every once in a while, however, I do hear of airlines holding a plane for some amount of time. Especially when it’s the last flight of the day.
    ==========================================================

    Airlines will also HOLD flights when there is more then “several passengers” on a particular flight. You look at the connection list and see 15 passengers going to TPA. A flight Attendant will usually rely that information to those connecting passengers. ie. They may hold your flight because 15 of you are connecting.

    Bill, please explain to me how “padding” is a problem? Airlines hate adding minutes to their schedules because they cost millions. Pilot and flight-attendant costs increase since most are paid based on scheduled time. Maintenance costs rise as well because many functions are based on how many hours that engines and airplanes are in service.
    And, when considering an airline, next to air fare, being on-time is very important to you. The on-line access to airline statistics are reported monthly on many airline sites. It’s huge, to be on-time. The only way things will change for “connectors” is that the DOT would include in it’s statistics, how many misconnects the airline incurred on a monthly basis.
    It’s also up to the passenger to book appropriate connection times. 30 minutes at ORD, LAX, JFK, DFW, etc is a recipe for disaster. Speaking of which, many years ago, I watched in horror as an elderly couple were late checking in at the airport. He was carrying heavy bags, sweaty and trying to rush. He collapsed in front of me and later died in the hospital. Most Americans are out of shape. I wonder how many people die, trying to make their connection. On the opposite side, airlines must remain competitive with each other, ground time is short. Planes are NOT making money, sitting at the gate. And, gate agents are under STRICT scrutiny of management. Show too many late flights at your gate, expect discipline.
    I asked a flight attendant recently if she still stresses along with the passengers who may or may not make their connections. She replied, “No. Emotionally, I cant do that. It’s too hard on me”.
    A few weeks ago, I was working a flight into MCO, where the bulkhead passengers had a tight, tight connection on Air Jamaica to Montego bay. I had the Capt radio Ops to see if the flight was still there. As we taxied in, I could see from my jumpseat, the bright colored aircraft at it’s gate. I pointed to the couple, it’s still there. I dont know if they made that flight, MCO has the trail system between terminals at that airport, but I even got everyone to let them off FIRST. :::shock:::

    For people with connections, my advice: See if you can MOVE UP close to the exit door, saving you valuable time deplaning. Sometimes that works.

    Personnally, I hate to see people miss flights. I know how important it is to make your destination. Mine is coming home everyweek after flying the stressful skies.

  • SirWired

    Personally, I’ve never understood what is so sacred about the door being shut. Surely there is plenty of prep work to be done in the cockpit before the jetbridge is required to move anywhere. Why can’t additional passengers be admitted, especially if the overhead bins aren’t full?

    Does the weight-balance checklist need to be re-computed for just a couple more passengers?

  • Paulette Baker

    This past November I was on the last flight out on Southwest from BWI to Providence. The gate agent announced that the flight would be delayed approximately 20 minutes to accommodate another Southwest flight that was late coming in from Florida. No big deal for me; I was glad those poor folks wouldn’t be stranded for the night through no fault of their own. Of course some pax complained big time, but on observation, they appeared to be the type who complain about everything.

    I agree with the poster who surmised one of the reasons for not opening that closed jetway door — with overbooking still rampant in the industry, “your” seat now has someone else’s butt crammed into it.

  • Carla

    I will never forget sitting on the last flight out of DEN on a Friday night to SFO, eager to get home after a long couple of days on the road and rolling my eyes when an announcement was made that the flight was being held for connecting passengers. I was so embarrassed when 10 minutes later a very appreciative mother and her special needs child boarded. So as a passenger, I don’t mind if the plane is held a little.

  • Sally A

    The airlines should be more accommodating and open the “closed door” for delayed connecting passengers, who may be outside the door.

    I have had various experiences. Connecting in Dallas on American after being delayed from Mexico City because of weather, I ran to the gate and arrived as they were beginning to close. My husband was walking and at first they did not want to wait for him but then said 2 minutes. He arrived in the knick of time as they were not going to wait for him any longer. There were two other couples with us who ended up missing the flight and American ended up paying for their overnight stay! It was the last flight out and I had told the FA’s that these people were also on their way. The airline could have saved money and stress if the personnel at the American desk where we rechecked our baggage after customs could have called the flight to say we were all on the way and then everyone would have made the effort to rush.

    Another time we waited for 30 minutes for someone who was not going to arrive.
    An acquaintance had attempted to make a change and the airline refused to help in any way. Because it was a non-refundable ticket, he decided not to cancel and let them resell the ticket. In the end they held the flight for 30 minutes, thinking that he was going to arrive!! It was not a connecting flight so I can only guess that he must have had clout somewhere.

    Bottom line is that airlines should be more flexible for last flight out and make a better effort to communicate to the cockpit when passengers are on the way.

  • Frank

    On July 30th, 2009 at 10:40 am SirWired said Personally, I’ve never understood what is so sacred about the door being shut. Surely there is plenty of prep work to be done in the cockpit before the jetbridge is required to move anywhere. Why can’t additional passengers be admitted, especially if the overhead bins aren’t full?
    ==========================================================

    If the cargo bins are open, and you can see that on the panel in the cockpit, then I would agree, keep the door open until those bins are closed. But, if they are indeed closed, the agent will come down with paper work. Enter the cockpit, come out and they’re ready to close the main entry door. With the Capt’s permission, you then close the door. Push back is almost immediately after that.
    What happens when you DO allow someone to come onboard at the last time and they DEMAND to know if their checked luggage made it? Further delay the flight? What if someone took their “empty” seat? Would YOU fly an airline that is constantly LATE?
    What I find troublesome is when the airline closes the door TEN MINUTES early, while the connecting passengers was running to make the flight. Now, that’s wrong!

  • Bill

    I remember back in the 80′s, I was in Salt Lake City sitting on a Western Airlines flight….waiting for late flights. We waited THREE hours..for no other reason than to wait for late flights to get into SLC.
    During this three hours, they would not let us off the plane.

    I do not want to return to those days. It didn’t do Western any good either…I realize they are not around anymore, but that one stupid delay and their way of dealing with it earned them a lifetime ban. Never, ever flew them again.

  • Hapgood

    With airlines scrambling to cut capacity to ensure full flights, there is too often no “reserve” to handle the inevitable glitches. The airline executives apparently have decided to let passengers assume all that risk on their own when the glitches occur, since that’s preferable to burdening their shareholders with unproductive capacity. That is unconscionable when a missed connection is the fault of the airline, the “weather,” or circumstances a passenger can neither control nor prevent.

    It indeed may not be feasible or even advisable to hold a departing flight for connecting passengers, so I don’t think a “standard” would be helpful. Rather, there should be a standard that holds airlines responsible and accountable for getting these passengers to their destination. If there are no available seats on that airline’s flights within a reasonable time, the airline should take responsibility for getting the passengers on another airline, or perhaps offer an alternative such as a voucher (and transportation from the airport) for Greyhound, Amtrak, or a rental car if that would get to the destination faster than an available flight. If it’s the last flight of the day and there are no alternative flights on other airlines, they should provide hotel accommodations. I don’t think anyone outside an airline executive suite would consider it acceptable to tell the passenger to come back the next day, or the day after that, when they have the next available seat on a flight; but that seems to be the current “standard.”

    Of course, the airline’s responsibility would only apply if the passenger booked a “legal” connection. A passenger who allows half an hour for a connection between terminals at a large airport deserves to bear the full consequences if that gamble fails.

  • sue

    Leaving the Bahamas once on a flight that was delayed three hours, we had to wait an additional fifteen minutes for a couple who apparently were in the airport bar and did not hear the announcements that the plane was boarding. It was faster to keep paging them than to unload their bags, I guess.

  • Carrie Charney

    Last month, my flight from Houston to Portland, OR waited half an hour for people who were connecting from a flight from Syracuse, NY. It was the last flight of the day and weather around the country had been pretty awful. The FA asked every late arriving passenger, “are you coming from Syracuse?” “Are you from the Syracuse plane?” At least ten stragglers arrived from other points and had the Syracuse delay to thank for making this flight. Finally, someone from the long-awaited flight arrived, along with 29 others from that plane. They were all attending a wedding the next day. Among them was the mother of the groom. I had no problem with the wait, but wondered, how could members of a wedding party book a last-minute flight for such an important occasion!

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