I recently reserved flights on United from my home airport, Medford, Ore., to New York, with a connection at San Francisco. My connection was a bit more than an hour, so I thought I'd be fine. But a week before departure, I started checking the on-time performance of my flight from Medford to San Francisco. I quickly found that, out of the seven days before departure, that flight would have made my connection only once -- the other days it was either delayed an hour or more or canceled outright.
Accordingly, I called United and asked if it could transfer me to an earlier flight, which it did, fortunately without any extra fee.
So instead of leaving Medford at a civilized time of 10:11 a.m., I had to get up at 5 a.m. for an 8:11 a.m. flight, leaving me with a boring 3½-hour wait at SFO rather than the convenient 65 minutes I had originally booked. But when departure day finally arrived, that wait shrunk substantially. Our early flight was held up on the ground for an hour and a half before leaving, so we actually arrived with a bit less than two hours to connect. That cushion was appreciated, given that most United Express flights and code-shared flights on US Airways at SFO now use the US Airways gates in Terminal 1, and connecting travelers have to schlep on shuttle buses to United's primary gates at Terminal 3.
The net result was that I made the connection comfortably. And to cap the story, I checked the arrivals board before getting on the New York flight; sure enough, my original flight from Medford had been canceled.
The purpose of this story isn't to pat myself on the back for being such a smart traveler; it's to illustrate that connections are among the most frustrating elements of air travel -- and given today's air travel, that's quite an accomplishment. My story is by no means unique; many of you face the same challenges.
Here's how to manage your itineraries to avoid the worst problems:
1. Airlines are supposed to post average monthly figures for each flight, showing the percentages of times it was delayed or canceled. When I checked, Alaska, American, Southwest, United and US Airways all provided links to that information for each flight display; I couldn't find it on Delta, but it must be in there somewhere. The problem with this system is that the data are not current: In mid-October, figures show for the month of August.
2. FlightStats (flightstats.com) provides both current (same-day) information and historical compilations for most domestic flights. You can also slice and dice the data almost any way you want. To remove duplication from the display, click the "omit codeshares" button.
Supposedly, any connection your airline books compensates for connecting times. But those can be misleading: In United's case, for example, connections at Boston, Chicago, Houston, Newark, N.J., and San Francisco involve inter-terminal shuttles, some requiring exiting and re-entering security, and many international airports require terminal transfer outside security.
Most airlines' official contracts allow you to pad your schedule up to four hours at connecting airports and, if schedules allow, an extra hour or two can mean the difference between making and missing a connection.
Contact Ed Perkins via firstname.lastname@example.org.