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New Security Guidelines Make Tight Connections Even Tighter

My friend Don has a round-trip ticket to Europe with connections at a European hub airport in both directions, all on one airline. Worried about the connection, he asked:

“My return itinerary gives me less than an hour to connect from an intra-European to a transatlantic flight. I’ve heard that European airports are adding additional security procedures on flights to the U.S., and I’m concerned that my ticketed connection is too close to assure making my flight home. I found an earlier flight to the connecting airport, with available seats, but when I asked to change to it, the airline wanted something like $150. So I’m stuck with the original connection. What can I do?”

The short answer is, “Not much for now, unless you pay extra, but the policies could change over the next few weeks.” And those of you who are planning a trip but haven’t bought your ticket yet should consider padding your connecting time before you buy your ticket.

Disorder at the Border

You know by now that last month’s attempted bombing of a Delta/Northwest flight to the U.S. raised renewed furor over security. Immediate knee-jerk reactions focused mainly on tighter rules for carry-on baggage plus playing the blame game with just about everyone from the President down to the airport workers. As I’m writing, the situation is still fluid, with new rules coming and going, and there’s no way I can keep up on the daily and even hourly changes as they’re announced. But it’s obvious that international travelers will face increased security—and additional screening procedures.

Certainly, the current international security system leaves a lot to be desired. Often, when you connect in a foreign airport, you remain within a supposedly-secure “transit” area from which you can board your connecting flight without additional baggage inspection or another security line. Obviously, that system has holes in it: Travelers who originate in an airport or country with lax security can get away with evasions that would be caught in a more secure system.

For this reason, you can expect additional security procedures for flights from foreign countries to the U.S., including connecting flights. Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was first to announce special secondary security screening of travelers bound for the U.S. or Canada, and I expect other big foreign hub airports to follow suit. TSA’s website confirms this conclusion:

“TSA issued a directive for additional security measures to be implemented for last-point-of-departure international flights to the United States. Passengers flying into the United States from abroad can expect to see additional security measures at international airports such as increased gate screening including pat-downs and bag searches.”

What TSA’s announcement doesn’t say, but what is obvious, is that additional security screening will take more time—maybe a lot more time during busy periods.

Unrealistic Connecting Times

Current “official” minimum connecting times that airlines use to schedule flights are woefully inadequate to account for additional security screenings. They generally range from 30 to 60 minutes, and when just getting from one gate to another at a big airport can often take 10 to 15 minutes, a close connection is just asking for a missed flight.

If connecting-hub security re-screening becomes the new norm—as seems likely—the airlines will have to adjust those minimum connecting times. For now, however, I checked several big transatlantic airlines, and so far none had posted anything new about minimum connecting times. The upshot is that airline systems will apparently still use the old connecting times in constructing itineraries, at least for a while.

Who’s Responsible?

When Don asked for an earlier flight, the airline agent told him, in effect, “Don’t worry. If your ticket calls for a tight connection, it’s our responsibility to see that you make that connection.” But just what is that “responsibility?” If security hang-ups at the connecting airport prevent a connection, the airline is required to give you a seat on the next available flight and to take care of any expenses incidental to the delay. But if your flight back to the U.S. is the last departure of the day, getting a seat the next day, even with a hotel room thrown in, isn’t really a good alternative.

What to Do

If you already have a ticket with a tight connection, I suggest, for now, that you stick with what your airline offers—and keep checking for adjustments. If heightened hub-airport security does, in fact, cause travelers to miss connections, I expect that the international airlines will quickly start to allow ticket changes without penalty—after all, accommodating delayed travelers costs them money, too.

If you’re still planning your trip, your first goal should always be to find a nonstop flight back to the U.S., if at all possible. However, that isn’t feasible for lots of trips, so your next goal should be to allow plenty of time at the connecting-hub airport. If the official minimum time is less than an hour, try to schedule an earlier flight to the hub. If I were doing it, I’d schedule a full two hours.

Other Pesky Security Rules

Right now, I can’t begin to predict where the security system will finally settle. That means that, as you get ready to leave, you have to keep checking your airline’s website for the latest guidelines, especially for connecting times and for limits on carry-on baggage.

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