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Down to the wire

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 ( 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 to help plan their journeys. We keep this information under review and listen to feedback from our customers.”

Vienna airport boasts a 25-minute MCT for Star Alliance carriers. That’s achievable when things run well but not otherwise. Amsterdam Schiphol airport has a 40-minute MCT between short-haul and 50 minutes between long-haul flights with KLM and other Skyteam services. That was OK when Schiphol was smaller but now its single terminal is far larger, and walking distances between piers can be vast, especially when connecting in Amsterdam to or from a Schengen area country.

KLM says it is aware that it takes longer if the connection involves the Schengen area. It now advises: “If you are traveling to/from Schengen and non-Schengen countries you should count on having to go through additional security checks and customs inspections. These can substantially extend the time it takes to complete your transfer procedure.”

Other European international airports with short – and some would say unrealistic – connecting times include Helsinki and Munich. The former has MCTs of 35-40 minutes, while the latter’s is as little as 30 minutes within Terminal 2 (mainly used by Star Alliance carriers) or 35 minutes in Terminal 1.

It should also be pointed out that the hubs of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have all come under pressure, mostly from the sheer weight of traffic, although bad weather, most commonly fog, can cause delays.

Qatar now enjoys a new hub in the form of Hamad International. Although Dubai has the new Al Maktoum International airport to look forward to, there are no immediate plans for Emirates to move its operations there, while Etihad is waiting for its new Midfield Terminal to open in 2017.

The Middle Eastern hubs do have some key advantages, however. Unlike their European counterparts, they have fewer short-haul flights connecting with long-haul services. The long-haul flights have more opportunity to regain time en route via favorable tail winds and other factors should they suffer a delay on departure and, in addition, the Gulf hubs are open 24 hours.

On a final note, if you are using separate tickets, allow extended connecting times of several hours to be on the safe side. (Remember that with separate tickets an airline is not obliged to through-check you or your luggage, so you may have to clear customs or security and check in again.)