Most unrealistic minimum connection ever? 30 minutes at JFK between different terminals!

by Janice Hough on January 29, 2013

JFK by Leocha

Many frequent fliers are familiar with the concept of unrealistic minimum connecting times.

As I tell clients, missed connections can be expensive or at least time-consuming for airlines, so they really try to publish schedules they can meet.

U.S. airlines routinely allow 30- to 40-minute connections for domestic flights. While, yes, most passengers end up making it, it’s also pretty common for passengers to miss their connections. And, it’s no fun when that happens.

Like many travel agents, I’ll try to steer customers away from tight connections, or at least give them alternatives and back-up options if they miss them.

Recently, my nominees for the “most unrealistic connection” have been Lufthansa’s 45-minute minimum-connect-time in Frankfurt and anything under 45 minutes in Denver and Chicago during the winter.

However, United Airlines, with its code-share partner Swiss, may have come up with the best connecting time, or rather, worst, I’ve seen — a 30-minute connection to an international flight, with two different carriers, in two different terminals, at JFK Airport.

The following is from a reservations display, which I caught just before suggesting it to a client.

UA 760Y 25FEB SFOJFK SS1 1041A 715P * MO E
UA7673Y 25FEB JFKGVA SS1 745P 930AŠ* MO/TU E
OPERATED BY SWISS

To translate this from airline-speak, this is a suggested connection on United Airlines from San Francisco to Geneva, arriving at JFK at 715p, and leaving at 745p, with the second flight operated by Swiss.

Oh, and the connection happens to be between Terminal 7 and Terminal 4.

For those lucky enough not to be regular fliers through JFK, the airport is huge. Unlike some other large airports, it’s not exactly walkable, even for passengers traveling light.

There’s an AirTrain now that’s usually faster than the shuttle buses that used to be the only alternative, but the train requires going outside of the security sealed area; thus, a second round of TSA.

To be fair, I suppose it is possible that United has some expedited way to transfer connecting passengers, but neither of the agents I spoke to indicated there was any such option.

Worse yet, miss the plane to Geneva and it’s 24 hours until the next one. My experience with code-share connections is that while airlines sometimes hold flights for their own late arrivals, partner airlines almost never do so.

To potentially add insult to injury, any passenger who raced to Terminal 4 and missed the flight anyway would then have to ignominiously return to the United’s Terminal 7 to be rebooked and ask for a hotel voucher and/or other compensation, since the missed connection wouldn’t be a Swiss Airlines problem.

If any Consumer Traveler readers have attempted this 30-minute inter-terminal connection, I’d love to hear about it.

Or, if you have another nominee for the biggest connection fantasy, please suggest it in comments. Inquiring minds want to know.

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  • Jennifer Deutsch

    Why are airlines allowed to sell connections that are not within the airport’s Minimum Connection Time (MCT)? JFK’s MCT is set for Domestic to International flights at 1 hour and 15 minutes.

  • TonyA_says

    Interesting. They just changed UA 760′s flight schedule: SFOJFK-1042A 716P. Since it arrives one minute later (at 716PM) it no longer qualifies as a connection to LX23.

    But trying to get from terminal 7 to terminal 4 at JFK in 30 minutes ???

    Not sure why any sane person would attempt it.

    What would you have to do?

    (1) Deplane at Gate x at Terminal 7
    (2) Run to the arrival’s exit and cross to Airtrain and go up to 3rd Level
    (3) Wait for next Airtrain (inner ring – All Terminal’s Loop) to Terminal 4. It will be the 2nd stop.
    (4) Arrive at Terminal 4, go up to Departure Level, rush through TSA security
    (5) Run to gate after TSA security.

    You’ve gotta be crazy to do this.

    I wouldn’t even try this if BOTH flights are on (small) BA’s Terminal 7.
    What if the inbound flight is a bit late? That’s the only nonstop to GVA Sorry. So it’s now 745PM and the only possible way to GVA is to take SQ25 to FRA which departs 810PM. Can UA reaccommodate this quick? Besides you would be in Terminal 4 with no UA agent to help you.
    You think you can take a cab to Newark (EWR) at catch the Swiss Int’l flight LX19, bound for ZRH, departing at 10PM?

    This is a good time to think about using a travel agent.

  • TonyA_says

    Very Good Question.

    In this specific case, UA uses a Minimum Connection (MCT) Status Override to D-D (meaning they treat it as a Domestic to Domestic connection) UA to UA connection of only 30 minutes.
    FLT.NO LEG DEP TR ARRIVAL TR EQP CITY CT MCT
    #UA 417 SFO JFK 835A 3 509P 7 757
    MCT STATUS OVERRIDE – D-D
    #UA7673 JFK GVA 745P 4 930A#1 M 333 JFK DI 30
    *OPERATED BY SWISS — LX23
    MCT STATUS OVERRIDE – I-I
    PSGR CHK IN – SWISS INTERNATIONAL

    Of course this is INSANE. Why? Look at Swiss Intl’s JFK MCT with a prior UA domestic connection
    >JFK-UA-LX*DI DI
    STANDARD: JFK 075
    EXCEPTIONS:
    A/L
    -ALL- 105
    LX

    As you had correctly mentioned, it is 75 minutes with United and 105 minutes with other airlines.

    If you want another look to see how crazy this is, consider a similar transfer for USAir to LX (Terminal 7 to 4).
    FLT.NO LEG DEP TR ARRIVAL TR EQP CITY CT MCT
    #US 374 CLT JFK 115P 303P 7 321
    LX 23 JFK GVA 745P 4 930A#1 M 333 JFK DI 105

    Note the required MCT is 105 minutes.

  • bodega3

    Back when UA Express flew from STS to SFO they often had 20 minute connect time for LAX flights. UA Express arrived at the commuter terminal out on the tarmac. You were not permitted to walk from there to the main terminal and had to take the shuttle. This often took 10 minutes and the shuttle dropped passenger off at the end of the UA concourse. The LAX hourly flights departed from gates up by where security is now located. This was just about a given misconnect for any passenger. A legal connect isn’t a necessarily a reasonable connect. Denver, as you mentioned, is another one that UA put in ridicuous connect times. Then when they put in married segments, getting a low fare on reasonable connecting flights became more difficult. I have avoided connecting passengers at JFK if at all possible.

  • DCTravel Agent

    it is so bad at Frankfurt that Lufthi offers a meet/greet/escort service in many, many languages. You pay 55E for up to five people in your party to be met at the arrival gate and escorted all the way to your departure gate – in time.

  • MeanMeosh

    KL used to sell a flight HYD-AMS-DFW with a 50 minute connection in AMS. Of course it was the cheapest routing by a wide margin, but luckily, the supervisor who had to approve my trip agreed that this was insane, and let me book something else with a more reasonable connection.

    The most insane connection I’ve seen was on another routing from India to the States. Back when AA flew DEL-ORD nonstop, you could buy a single ticket from most points in India by taking a connection on Jet Airways. You could do this from HYD, and the connection in DEL at one point was something like an hour and 50 minutes. This might not sound like a big deal, unless you’ve experienced the utter chaos that a domestic-to-international connection in DEL was back in the days before the new terminal was opened. After landing at the domestic terminal, often at a remote stand, you had to collect your bags, wait for a shuttle bus that ran only every 30 minutes, take the 15 minute shuttle bus ride, fight your way through the front door at the international terminal (which itself could take more than 30 minutes), check in, clear immigration and security (which could take more than an hour), and finally walk over to your gate. AA used to recommend arriving at the international terminal a minimum of 3 1/2 hours before flight time because of the circus – yet they’d sell you an hour and 50 minute connection! I never had the guts to try that connection, but I’m sure there are some out there who have and have lived to tell about it.

  • TonyA_says

    You know what’s even funnier? We (through fares) eventually end up paying the salaries of the idiots who do these MCTs. This must be a secretive group of “engineers”. I wonder if monkeys with dartboards would do better?

  • ton lammering

    actually as most of the intercontinental flights are in 1 terminal to separate from schengen traffic, as long as that is the case it would be possible allthough any delay would be fatal;

  • Matthew in NYC

    I would never trust an airline’s minimum connection time. I one of a party of four booked to fly CBR-SYD-WLG in late March. Initially we were booked on a 0645 flight from CBR-SYD leaving almost two hours to connect to the international flight in SYD. Then QF cancelled the 0645 flight and booked us on the 0730 flight allowing for a 65 minute connection. This is not nearly enough time when the CBR-SYD flight may be fog delayed, the bus from between the domestic terminal and the international only runs every 20 minutes, and you have to clear immigration and security at the international terminal. Throw two octogenarian traveler in the mix, and you come up with “I don’t think so.” We rebooked on the 6.20 a.m. flight, allowing for a two hour connection, it is also the first flight of the day, so is parked overnight in CBR and will take off, even in heavy fog.

  • TonyA_says

    I just remembered, my parents (in the eighties) always complain about Schiphol.
    They tell me they can no longer run and even with the people mover they need more than 50 minutes because the airport is huge and the gates are far apart.

    The problem is that if you fly Skyteam, the alternative CDG is worse.

  • MeanMeosh

    The problem is the redundant, extra security screening mandated for US-bound flights after 9/11. I haven’t flown through Schiphol since then, but the procedure at FRA is awful; it can easily take 30 minutes, and that’s after being bused to the terminal and walking in circles for another 20 or so. With the large airports in Europe, that makes any connection less than 90 minutes darn near impossible these days.

  • MeanMeosh

    Sadly, we, the traveling public, have ourselves to blame as much as the airlines who concoct these crazy connections. Nobody wants to sit around the airport, so they demand to their TAs and the airlines that they make layovers as short as possible (I’m sure you have plenty of war stories about times you’ve tried to talk clients out of tight connections, but they refuse). So the number crunchers come up with crazy short connections to fill the demand, and guys like you end up getting to clean up the mess.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s ironic. The OP doing the SFO-JFK-GVA connection in JFK was possibly trying to avoid a connection in FRA, so they chose JFK instead.
    I’m not sure which is worse. At least in JFK the signs are in English :-) (So are the signs in FRA.)

  • ton lammering

    have not tried it but if my memory is correct you would have 1 check when you want to go into the gate waiting area, which so close to takeoff would not have much people waiting, but it would be 50m of near panic at at best

  • FlyingFi

    I know this post is a little old, but I saw it and needed to comment. I had a 30 minute transfer through IAD to an international flight purchased on the United.com site. I hadn’t really paid it much mind until I landed in IAD on the way in and realised exactly how long that walk was. A few days out from my flight, I called United to check whether that was actually going to be enough time (as it was a transit destination, I didn’t really want to be stuck there and much like this situation, the flight was the only one for 24 hours). The woman on the phone was aghast that I’d been sold that itinerary, and immediately rebooked me (on a better flight for me – she gave me options and days and actually got me flying out of a closer airport), free of charge.

    So it worked out ok in the end but I’d wager that if you called United, they wouldn’t let you book that flight (*especially* with a terminal change).

    As to this post, I’m thinking of transferring through Terminal 4 to a flight in Terminal 7 with about 2 hours as transit time. Do you think that’s sufficient as an international (non-US citizen) traveller? I’m planning a premium pass for the domestic leg to make sure security goes … quicker.

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