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Airlines don’t usually hold connecting flights for delayed passengers. That could be changing.

United’s new Connection Saver tool automatically places a hold on some outbound flights, but it could cause further delays.

A young woman with a suitcase beside her stands at an airport flight arrivals and departures display.
Most airlines prioritize departing on schedule to prevent further delays rather than hold a flight for a passenger.
Getty Images

Booking a flight with a tight connection is almost always a risk, yet plenty of us do it anyway. It can sometimes lead to cheaper or more convenient flights, and if your incoming plane is on time, chances are you’ll make the outbound leg just fine — at least, that’s likely how most people justify it.

Of course, making that connection isn’t always what happens. The minimum connecting time between flights can be as short as 30 minutes for domestic travel and 60 minutes for international connections, according to the travel provider AirTreks.

Even if the first flight is on time with no significant delays, a short window can cut it close, especially when you factor in the time it takes to get off a plane and walk to the next departure gate. And in the United States, there’s no federal legislation that requires airlines to compensate passengers for a missed connection. Airlines do typically rebook flights if the missed connection is caused by a previously delayed flight, but further accommodations like a hotel stay or meals can be circumstantial.

If a passenger is lucky, however, there are situations where an airline actually holds an outbound flight for them. But that decision can feel arbitrary and opaque to travelers who don’t understand the vicissitudes of airline operations.

United airlines ticketing counter
United Airlines implemented its Connection Saver tool in January and has helped more than 50,000 travelers make their flight.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Until now, that choice has generally been made by employees at airline operation centers, who determine the logistics that make a hold possible with the help of virtual tools: whether there’s another aircraft scheduled at the gate, how delayed the outbound flight would be, potential in-flight weather delays, and how many travelers would be affected, among other factors.

United Airlines is trying to reduce the number of passengers who miss their tight connections by using a new technology to automate holds. The Connection Saver tool, as the airline is calling it, has helped more than 50,000 travelers make their flights since its launch in January, said United CEO Oscar Munoz on October 16. It’s currently used in seven US airports and will expand to all domestic United hubs by the end of October.

This is how it works: Connection Saver places an automatic hold on flights for passengers making tight connections based on a set of factors, although crew members can override the hold if needed.

The technology considers whether it’s feasible for travelers to make their layovers without severely delaying the outbound flight, especially if it’s expected to arrive early or on time. The algorithm doesn’t account for whether there’s one person or multiple people at risk of missing their connection.

Based on United’s test run in Denver, about 90 percent of passengers have made a connection that’s held for them, according to travel blog Cranky Flier, which interviewed United’s managing director of network operations control for the statistic. (It’s not clear how many passengers would have made those connections without the use of the tool.)

United is using the tool to make a calculated decision: It’s chosen to hold a flight and delay its on-time departure, which could potentially affect its arrival time. Most carriers, of course, aim to leave on schedule to reduce the possibility of delay. It’s a move that appears to prioritize customers at the expense of on-time departure ratings, which could benefit United — provided it doesn’t cause further delays.

United is choosing to appease customers and depart later — provided they make up time in the air

In an industry that prizes on-time arrivals and departures, United Airlines’ highly publicized approach with Connection Saver is unlike that of its legacy competitors. The advancement has come at the cost of United’s on-time departure score, a factor Munoz dismissed at a CNBC summit in September. “We don’t care,” he said. “We have saved tens of thousands of connections.”

The Department of Transportation ranks airlines based on on-time arrivals and departures; it has a 15-minute window for planes to arrive or leave the gate to be considered “on time.”

In fact, there’s a lot of excess time built into plane schedules to compensate for delay potentials, says Robert Mann, an industry consultant and former airline executive. But there’s an overwhelming focus within the industry to leave at the scheduled departure time. Even if United Airlines holds a flight for a passenger, the aircraft could arrive within the 15-minute window that categorizes it as an on-time flight.

“Most customers don’t care when a flight leaves; they care about when it arrives,” Mann says. “But the same attention isn’t placed on arriving earlier. There’s a rigorous focus on leaving on time.”

United is ranked eighth out of 10 airlines in on-time arrivals with a 77 percent rate, according to the Department of Transportation, ahead of JetBlue and budget carrier Frontier Airlines. (The average across all airlines was around 79 percent last year.)

In situations where an airline holds an aircraft, its operation centers will have to examine the economic impact of a passenger’s missed connection, says Tolga Turgut, an assistant professor of aviation at the Florida Institute of Technology. This typically applies to international flights, in which a missed flight can be costly.

“The most expensive seat for an airline is an empty seat,” he says. With a missed connection, airlines often have to book that passenger another flight and also lose out on not having that seat filled in the first place.

United’s Connection Saver tool will likely inspire other carriers to publicize similar technologies that could benefit customers, Turgut says. “It is a trade-off for United between caring about the passengers, enhancing customer satisfaction and brand loyalty, versus falling one or two spots on the rankings of on-time performance,” he explains.

Airlines say running a timely operation would likely prevent missed connections

Mann argues that a tool like Connection Saver has been possible since the late 1990s but says most airlines have stuck with a “fire and forget” mentality. Mann says carriers are focused on departing on schedule but neglect to anticipate delays in the air. Congestion and delays consistently happen at airports and during the trip, which are a “function of the airlines’ failure to manage their assets in real time.”

It’s notable that United has recently struggled with its on-time performance compared to the three other major airlines. Its rating dropped below 70 percent in June — the first time in recent history, according to the Chicago Business Journal. If United’s airline operations are consistently held up, it makes sense that a tool like Connection Saver could improve customer satisfaction or, at the very least, alleviate passenger concerns.

Delta Airlines, which leads the major carriers in on-time arrivals, relies on technology and employees in its hub operation centers to make a decision, rather than an automated tool. A similar process is used at American Airlines in coordination with its operation centers in Texas.

“The best way to avoid managing misconnected flights is to run an on-time operation,” a Delta spokesman wrote in an email. While there can be unexpected or maintenance delays, having a consistent schedule will increase the likelihood of travelers making their tight connection, they say.

For premium flyers, American and Delta both offer gate-to-gate black car service, although the circumstances in which a car can be coordinated depends on the outbound flight.

United has a similar service for premium passengers at its hub airports, but the Connection Saver tool extends to all travelers, regardless of status.

A United spokeswoman said the company is testing an alert system for passengers. Currently, travelers are aware of the time and place of their connection but aren’t directly informed whether the plane is held for them.

If airlines optimize their flight schedules and adopt technologies that could make effective decisions, Mann believes it will benefit both the industry and customers, not just those at risk of missing a tight connection.

“The key is which airlines start to utilize available information to optimize their operations,” Mann says. “United has decided to take a small step in this case and move in the right direction.”

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