The airline didn't allow my connection — reader mistake story
Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Corey, who got an unwelcome surprise at the check-in counter:
I was flying with my family from Denver (DEN) to Evansville (EVV) with a connection in Chicago (ORD) on a flight booked directly through the American Airlines website. A couple months before the flight, I received email notice of a schedule change. American had increased the flight time of the DEN-ORD leg, leaving a 30-minute connection in Chicago instead of the hour we had scheduled previously.
When my family (me, my wife and our 18-month-old) arrived at the airport in Denver, we were informed by the ticketing agent that she could not check us in for our flight because the connection time at ORD was too short. Essentially, American's reservations system had lengthened our first flight, making it impossible to check in at the airport. She looked for other ways to get us to our destination in a timely manner, but the best she could do was offer a flight from ORD-EVV the next day, stranding us in Chicago for a night. She did not offer to reimburse us for a hotel. Given that we were already at the airport, we had to accept the change.
In the end, the DEN-ORD flight arrived in Chicago "early" with plenty of time to connect (surprise, surprise), and we decided to fly standby on the original ORD-EVV flight. However, our bags were not checked through to Evansville since we had been taken off the flight, and they did not arrive until the next day (which was not ideal with an 18-month-old). While American did later offer us a $50 travel voucher, I though the whole episode showed poor customer service. I want other readers to be aware that they need to monitor their own connection times, since the American Airlines reservation system is apparently not capable of doing so.
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Corey is right that keeping an eye on your connections is judicious, and you should do so regardless of your carrier and routing. Airlines set a minimum connection time (MCT) based on your flights and the airport where your transfer occurs. They generally won't offer itineraries that violate the MCT, but schedule changes and irregular operations are liable to prompt errors; so examine adjustments made by the airline closely to ensure your connections remain viable. If you're not satisfied with your new itinerary, address it right away, since the longer you wait, the fewer options you'll have.
Airlines base the MCT on expectations for able-bodied adults; that doesn't account for people who need extra time, such as those traveling with a disability and families with young children, or even folks who just need a pit stop in the terminal. I recommend you look beyond the MCT and consider whether a connection is reasonable for you. There are ample resources to help you decide: FlightAware provides data from recent flights, including on-time performance and arrival and departure gates; airport websites and specialized apps like TripIt Pro can help you estimate how far you're going and how long it's likely to take; you can even search for testimonials online from people familiar with the airport you're transiting. Avoid booking connections you can't make, and ideally leave a little room for error.
While Corey should have thought twice about the short connection and had sufficient time to rectify it, I view American Airlines as ultimately culpable for his predicament. Corey forwarded me the email notices he received, which described his schedule change, but did not indicate that his itinerary was no longer valid. The onus shouldn't be on passengers to verify that a connection (on a single itinerary) satisfies the MCT, and airlines can't reasonably expect them to anticipate every repercussion of a schedule change. American Airlines failed to abide by its own rules in this case, but Corey and his family had to deal with the fallout. That sounds like poor customer service to me.
Related: Using airline schedule changes to move to a new flight, get refunds and more
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Corey a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to email@example.com, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!