When piecing together a custom itinerary, it’s sometimes the case that you’ve found the perfect flights, only for an agent to let you know that it’s not a valid itinerary.
One of the reasons why that may be so is that your flights didn’t respect the minimum connection time (MCT) for one or more of the airports in your itinerary.
Minimum connection times are one of the many factors that you need to consider when planning out a trip. While they may limit your options in some situations, you can also benefit from schedule changes on tight connections.
Let’s take a look at minimum connection times, why they’re important, how to find out what a minimum connection time is, and how you can stand to benefit from schedule changes.
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. Airlines can face penalties if passengers end up missing a flight because a connection was booked under the minimum time.
Whenever you search for flights, be it a cash booking or one with points, all the one-stop, two-stop, or three-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, and you’re piecing together a complex itinerary that can’t be booked online.
Here are a few examples of minimum connection times at some airports around the world that you might find yourself looking at:
Toronto (YYZ): 40 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International and International–International), 1 hour 15 minutes (International–Domestic)
- Note that the MCTs for Toronto Pearson are in flux until October 29, 2022 due to the ongoing difficulties at the airport.
Montreal (YUL): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (all other flights)
Vancouver (YVR): 40 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International and International–International), 1 hour 20 minutes (International–Domestic),
- Note that there are temporary changes to MCTs at Vancouver until October 29, 2022 due to the ongoing difficulties at the airport..
Newark (EWR): 1 hour (Domestic–Domestic or International–International), 1 hour 15 minutes (Domestic–International), 1 hour 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
San Francisco (SFO): 50 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International), 1 hour 45 minutes (International–Domestic or International–International)
Frankfurt (FRA): 45 minutes
Zurich (ZRH): 40 minutes
Istanbul (IST): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour 15 minutes (Domestic–International and International–International), 1 hour 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
Singapore (SIN): 1 hour 30 minutes
Beijing (PEK): 1 hour 30 minutes
Tokyo (HND): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour 40 minutes (International–International), 2 hours (Domestic–International, International–Domestic)
Tokyo (NRT): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International), 1 hour 30 minutes (International–Domestic and International–International)
Dubai (DXB): 20 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International or International–Domestic), 1 hour 15 minutes (International–International)
Cairo (CAI): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour 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 30 minutes (International–Domestic)
Panama City (PTY): 30 minutes (Domestic–Domestic), 1 hour (Domestic–International or International–Domestic), 1 hour 30 minutes (International–International)
You’ll notice that the MCTs 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. When an airport is easy to navigate like in Zurich, the minimum connection time is only 40 minutes.
On the other hand, Tokyo Haneda has separate terminals for domestic and international flights, so Domestic–Domestic connections are very quick at only 30 minutes.
But if you’re connecting from a domestic flight onto an international flight, or vice versa, you’ll require at least two 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’ll be 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 results show 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. There usually isn’t any difference between the times listed on these two lines.
In the above example, we can see that the MCT in Calgary for a Domestic–Domestic or a Domestic–International flight is 45 minutes. For International–Domestic or International–International flights, the MCT is 1 hour 30 minutes.
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 Calgary International Airport with flight numbers between 7,450–8,999, there is only a 30 minute MCT.
The world of airline jargon can get convoluted very quickly, so don’t be surprised if you see some things that don’t make sense. Rather, the most important MCTs to pay attention to are at the top of the results in the “Online” and “Offline” rows.
Minimum Connection 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 a flight from 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.
In the above example, you could take a connection of 1 hour 30 minutes to get from an inbound Air Canada flight from Vancouver to an outbound flight with All Nippon Airways to Tokyo. But if you were coming in from another country without a pre-clearance facility, you’d be subject to a 2 hour MCT.
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?
You may be wondering if you can simply volunteer to risk a tight connection.
For example, there may be instances when you’d be within a few minutes of legally making a connection to the last flight back home for the night.
If you don’t make the flight, you’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 a desired routing is available for the whole day, but it falls afoul of the minimum connection time from a previous flight.
Since waiting for the next available flight would result in a connection of over 24 hours, it would then become it an invalid layover and subject to stopover pricing.
Even if you try to present your case to the agent and ask them to make an exception, you’ll likely be met with steadfast refusal every time.
The agents will emphasize that the computer system won’t let them book the connection, and that the minimum connection time is very much a hard and fast rule.
Even if they were to somehow override it, the airline and/or loyalty program would be subject to penalties if you were to indeed misconnect along your journey, as a result of them having booked you 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 misconnect even if your inbound flight isn’t delayed, and no airline wants to put themselves in that position.
Of course, you can also use minimum connection times to your advantage in the event of schedule changes.
If you’ve booked a connection that’s right against the minimum, and a 10-minute schedule change results in your connection now being deemed illegal, you can call up the 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 usually 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. You 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.