Every now and then I like to walk you through some technical mumbo jumbo from the airline industry, and today we’ll focus on minimum connection times (MCTs) and what you need to understand about them as you’re planning a trip.
What Are Minimum Connection Times?
Every airport around the world has a set of rules for how much time is needed to transit through that airport on the same ticket.
It’s basically a measure of how easily navigable the airport is for connecting passengers – if it’s a tiny facility with just a few gates, the minimum connection time will be very low; on the other hand, more expansive airport facilities around the world with multiple terminals and concourses will have minimum connection times verging on two hours or more.
Airlines must follow these MCTs when issuing a ticket, and they’re usually pretty strict about these rules because they can face penalties if passengers end up missing a flight because a connection was booked under the minimum time.
Whenever you search for flights (whether it’s regular cash flights or award tickets), all the one-stop or two-stop itineraries that are presented to you will have already factored in the minimum connection time, and you won’t see any options that run afoul of this rule.
It’s only when you’re piecing together an award itinerary that’s more complex than what the search engine spits out that you’ll need to be mindful of the minimum connection time at the airport you’re planning to transit through.
This is particularly relevant if you’re using a program like Aeroplan, whose online search engine often fails at finding the most elementary routings and requires you to piece together a journey on your own before calling Aeroplan to book.
Here are a few examples of minimum connection times at some airports around the world that you might find yourself looking at:
Toronto (YYZ): 45 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (all other flights)
Montreal (YUL): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (all other flights)
Vancouver (YVR): 45 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour and 30 minutes (all other flights)
Newark (EWR): 1 hour (Domestic–Domestic or International–International), 1 hour and 15 minutes (Domestic–International), 1 hour and 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
San Francisco (SFO): 50 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International), 1 hour and 45 minutes (International–Domestic or International–International)
Frankfurt (FRA): 45 minutes
Zurich (ZRH): 40 minutes
Istanbul (IST): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour and 15 minutes (Domestic–International and International–International), 1 hour and 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
Singapore (SIN): 1 hour
Beijing (PEK): 1 hour and 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 2 hours (all other flights)
Tokyo (HND): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (International–International), 2 hours (Domestic–International, International–Domestic)
Tokyo (NRT): 20 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (all other flights)
Dubai (DXB): 20 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International or International–Domestic), 1 hour and 15 minutes (International–International)
Cairo (CAI): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour and 30 minutes (all other flights)
Addis Ababa (ADD): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 45 minutes (International–International), 1 hour (Domestic–International or International–Domestic)
São Paulo (GRU): 1 hour (all flights except International–Domestic), 1 hour and 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
Panama City (PTY): 20 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International or International–Domestic), 1 hour and 30 minutes (International–International)
You’ll notice that the MCT mostly account for how long it would take to make your way from one gate to another, factoring in any “obstacles” that the passenger must traverse along the way. For example, Zurich Airport is well-known for being very easy to transit through, with automatic people movers providing seamless connections between the various concourses, so you’re allowed to book connections of only 40 minutes apart at Zurich.
On the other hand, Tokyo Haneda has separate terminals for domestic and international flights, so Domestic–Domestic and International–International connections are both reasonably quick at 30 minutes and 1 hour respectively, but connecting from a domestic flight onto an international flight, or vice versa, requires at least 2 hours to factor in the journey on the inter-terminal monorail.
How to Find the Minimum Connection Time
Looking up the minimum connection time is one of the many useful capabilities of ExpertFlyer. If you aren’t currently an ExpertFlyer subscriber, you can use the five-day free trial to look it up as well.
You’ll want to look under the Travel Information section, followed by the “Min Connect Times” tab. You’re prompted to enter the Connecting Airport in question, as well as the Inbound and Outbound Airlines and the “Flight Type” you’re looking up (i.e., some combination of domestic and international flights).
The first few lines of the resultant output shows you the “standard” minimum connection times of that airport. The four standard times correspond to connections of the Domestic–Domestic, Domestic–International, International–Domestic, and International–International variety, respectively.
(There are also separate lines for “Online” and “Offline”, which refer to connections between the same airline and different airlines respectively, but I’ve never seen any difference between the times listed on these two lines.)
The remaining lines detail all the exceptions to the rule, which tend to be quite numerous for any major airport. For example, we see above that among Domestic–Domestic connections on Air Canada at Toronto Pearson, inbound flights from Calgary, from Edmonton, and from Vancouver on Airbus A319, A320, and A321 aircraft are subject to a longer minimum connection time of 50 minutes.
After that, we see that domestic connections within Pearson’s Terminal 1 or Terminal 3 are subject to a minimum connection time of 45 minutes, while connections between terminals are subject to a higher minimum of 1 hour and 15 minutes.
(But hold on, if virtually any connection has to be at least 45 minutes apart, why then does the standard minimum connection time show 20 minutes for “D–D”? To be honest, I have no idea. Stuff in the airline industry can get very convoluted very quickly, and the byzantine nature of the MCT output is yet another example of that.
Minimum Connections Times & US Pre-Clearance
One thing to note is that if you’re flying into the US from an airport that has a US pre-clearance facility (such as most major airports in Canada, as well as Dublin and Abu Dhabi), then the flight is treated as a Domestic flight for the purposes of minimum connection times.
After all, you’ve already technically “entered” the US at your point of departure, and upon deplaning in the US you’ll find yourself in the domestic terminal with all the other domestic US flights.
So if you’re looking at US gateway airports for your Aeroplan redemption from, say, Montreal down to Newark and then onwards to Europe, or Vancouver down to Los Angeles before flying to Asia, you’d be looking at the “D–I” minimum connection time for Newark or Los Angeles, rather than “I–I”. This is important to keep in mind, since it can be the difference between being forced into an overnight hotel stay and booking a tight but valid connection at the US gateway airport.
The opposite, however, is not true: if you’re connecting through the US on your way to Canada, that’s still treated as an international flight and you’ll still be looking at the “I–I” minimum connection time.
Can Minimum Connection Times Be Overridden?
On several occasions I’ve found myself in a position where I wondered whether the minimum connection time could be waived or overridden, perhaps by a sympathetic agent over the phone.
For example, there have been times when I’ve been within a few minutes of legally making a connection to the last flight back home for the night; if I couldn’t make that flight, I’d either have to take an unpleasant red-eye flight or an overnight layover at the connection point.
Or there might be a situation where only one flight for my desired routing is available for the whole day, but it fell afoul of the minimum connection time from my previous flight. And yet, I couldn’t choose to fly the next day either, since that would result in a connection of over 24 hours, making it an invalid layover.
When this happened, I would always present my case to the Aeroplan agent and ask them to make an exception, but I was met with steadfast refusal every time. The agents routinely emphasized that the computer system would not let them book the connection, and even if they were to somehow override it, Aeroplan and Air Canada would be subject to penalties if I were to indeed misconnect along my journey as a result of them having booked me on an illegal connection.
(Remember, if you’re booked on connecting flights on the same ticket and miss your connection as a result of a delay, the operating airline is obligated to rebook you on a different flight to get you to the destination. However, in theory, if you were booked on a connection tighter than the minimum connection time, then you could in theory misconnect even if your inbound flight isn’t delayed, and no airline wants to put themselves in that position.)
So long story short, the minimum connection time is very much a hard and fast rule in my experience. Nevertheless, you can actually use the airlines’ inflexibility to your own advantage – if you’ve booked a connection that’s right against the minimum, and a 10-minute schedule change results in your connection now being illegal, you bet that you can call up Aeroplan or whatever frequent flyer program you used and make a change to your itinerary without paying any change fees as a result!
Minimum connection times are one of those minute details in the travel and aviation world that you’ll only need to deal with if you’re piecing together complex, customized trips. They provide guidance as to how tight of a connection you’re allowed to book on a single itinerary, and you can easily look them up using ExpertFlyer the next time you’re planning a trip to check whether your connection is legal. In addition, the fact that airlines are such sticklers for the minimum connection time can be used to score some easy change fee waivers as well.