I trust that all of you have flown at one time from Point A to Point C, changing planes in Point B. (Example: Seattle to Fort Lauderdale on Continental changing planes in Houston.) That, of course, is known as a connection or a connecting flight.
It could also involve two (or more) different carrers, such as Delta from Salt Lake City to Seattle and Alaska Airlines from there to Anchorage.
With the growth of the hub system since airline deregulation in the late 70s, connections have increased as carriers built certain of their airports into huge operations with banks of flights coming and going all day.
Think Dallas/Fort Worth for American, Chicago for both American and United, Denver and San Francisco for United, Philadelphia and Charlotte for U.S. Airways, and so on. Southwest is sometimes cited in error as an airline that doesn’t operate connecting hubs but this is not true: Chicago-Midway, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Baltimore all serve as hubs for Southwest.
What is and is not an allowable (“legal”) connection between flights at a given airport is spelled out by what are called “minimum connecting times”. This is the minimum amount of time that must elapse in the connecting city between the scheduled arrival of your inbound flight and the scheduled departure of your outbound flight. The times will vary depending on whether the connection is between flights of the same carrier or different carriers, domestic or international, and sometimes specific flights.
The purpose of the minimum connecting time is to reasonably assure that people and baggage can get from one flight to another under normal, on-time conditions. (Whether the minimum time is realistic may be disputable and for an amusing and useful take on that read a post by Janice Hough.)
Any schedule you are quoted on-line or by a human being looking at a computer screen has already been vetted by the airline availability system as being a “legal” connection (i.e. it conforms to the required minimum connecting times). Does that mean it’s wise to book a schedule with a 45 minute layover in Chicago-O’Hare? Maybe not, but that’s another matter and not the subject of this post or Airline Fare School.
Thus far what I’ve written about is simply the physical operation of the connection around the minimum time necessary to switch flights.
But there is a separate implication that has to do with fares.
Domestic connections (and between the U.S. and Canada):
A domestic connection allows for a connecting time between flights of up to 4 hours, such that fares between Points A and C connecting in Point B will be the “through fare” between Points A and C.
A domestic connection of greater than 4 hours is considered a stopover, and will result in two “point-to-point” fares being charged, between Points A and B, and between Points B and C.
International connections (except between the U.S. and Canada):
An international connection allows for a connecting time between flights of up to 24 hours, with through fares being charged between the origin and destination.
An international connection of greater than 24 hours is considered a stopover, and will result in two “point-to-point” fares being charged between Points A and B, and between Points B and C.
This might sound like dry legalese but it’s anything but when it comes to the price of your tickets.
There are exceptions galore – completely dependent on the fares in any given two markets – but in general when you have to pay two separate fares you pay more.
Take a look at this itinerary and price breakdown from Apollo.
It’s an American Airlines connecting flight on 15 September from Sacramento (SMF) to Miami (MIA) via Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW). Notice that the inbound flight to DFW arrives at 11:25 a.m. and the departing flight at 2:10 p.m. Since it’s less than 4 hours between planes, the fare does not need to be “broken” in DFW. (That’s airline parlance for using point-to-point fares.)
Reading the fare calculation shows that the fare basis is the SA10XQZN. From SMF to MIA it’s $166.51 plus the various taxes and fees for a total of $200.20. On the first line you see X/DFW which indicates that the fare is a through fare connecting in DFW.
Now take a look at this very slightly different itinerary. Same flight from SMF to DFW but the flight from DFW to MIA leaves a little later at 3:35 p.m.
How much time is there now between the connecting flights?
4 hours 10 minutes.
And look what happened to the fare. The best price that system could calculate by “breaking” the fare into two pieces (SMF-DFW and DFW-MIA) was a whopping $569.20.
If you read the fare calculation line, you’ll see the fare basis SA14DNR for SMF-DFW and fare basis NA7DNR for DFW-MIA.
Why so high? Because the connection in DFW exceeded 4 hours, it forced the system to break the trip into two point-to-point fares instead of using the SMF-MIA through fare.
Look the very same situations from your perspective as a consumer using American Airlines’ website aa.com:
Dry legalese? I don’t think so when there’s $369 at stake.
For those who travel frequently and have gotten burned by legal yet often missed connections, you may want to intentionally schedule a longer connection in order to provide some padding. Remember the 4-hour rule when you are booking flights.
For international travelers the ability to spend up to 24 hours in the gateway city before connecting to your international flight might make it possible to squeeze in what amounts to a free stopover without having to break the fare into two pieces.
Reasons for doing so will vary but might include dinner with friends in Boston, a meeting in New York, quick sightseeing in Miami, or simply breaking a very long trip into smaller pieces of air travel.
Let’s say you’re traveling from San Francisco (SFO) to New York-Kennedy (JFK) on Delta, and connecting the next day (but within 24 hours of your arrival in JFK) for another Delta flight to Madrid (MAD).
Airline fare systems will compare the available “through fare” between SFO and MAD with the combination of available “point-to-point fares” between SFO and JFK and between JFK and MAD. The fare you pay should be whichever is least expensive, the through fare between SFO and MAD or the sum of the SFO-JFK and JFK-MAD point-to-point fares.
On the other hand, if your stop in New York is greater than 24 hours the system can only look for combinations of point-to-point fares because you must make your international connection within 24 hours after arriving at the gateway airport (in this case JFK) in order for through fares to apply. (Rare exceptions to this sometime exist which we’ll look at in a later AFS chapter.)
The same thing would be true in reverse: coming from an international point of origin to a domestic U.S. destination.
One last operational point.
There are times you can play around with this stuff using the airline websites or on-line agencies like Orbitz, Travelocity, etc., but a good bricks-and-mortar agent that knows her/his stuff is a better bet, especially for international travel. Yes, you’ll have to pay a fee because airlines don’t pay agencies commissions but it should be worth it.
If you want to try this yourself on-line, you’ll need to use the “multi-city” option to intentionally break a trip into pieces.
Next up on Airline Fare School is one of my favorite subjects. If there is only one chapter of Airline Fare School that you read, then this next one should be it. I won’t tell you what is but merely provide a clue: Tinkertoys. Read all about it in AFS # 6.
(Link to previous chapter, AFS # 4)