Missed Connections: Why Some Airlines Hold The Plane For You But Others Won’t

On Thursday afternoon, Southwest Airlines delayed flight 19, the 1:35 p.m. departure from Houston Hobby airport to Las Vegas. They told passengers on board that 20 connecting passengers were inbound on other flights to Houston, and they wanted those passengers to make their connections. The airline originally announced a 20 to 25 minute hold. It became longer.

The logic on this one was really interesting to me, because I can’t quite make it out. My first thought was that,

  • It’s the Thursday afternoon before New Year’s so that’s peak of peak to Las Vegas
  • And Southwest might not have other flights to accommodate these passengers on

However I checked and Southwest had plenty of open seats later in the day.

You might think that “Houston is a hub, and very few passengers would be connecting beyond Las Vegas with Southwest” but that’s not actually the case. Las Vegas isn’t just a destination, but also a connecting station for the airline and several passengers on board had their own connections jeopardized by the decision.

Furthermore, the aircraft had more flying to do and it would be causing downline flights with that aircraft (and with these same crew) to be delayed. That could cause misconnects for passengers later in the day too.

United Airlines runs something called ConnectionSaver that is unique. They will delay flights for passengers to help them make connections. But they don’t do it all the time. Their computers take several things into account.

  • Many flights are projected to arrive early. They’ll delay a flight where doing so just means the flight will arrive on-time rather than early.

  • Delaying the last flight of the day is more common, because the consequences of missed connections are greater (forced overnight) and because delaying the plane and other passengers has fewer consequences (they won’t be connecting and the plane may just be overnighting). A long delay could require crew to start late the next day to get minimum rest, but a short delay won’t have that effect.

American Airlines, by contrast, only lets agents hold the door instead of closing it 10 minutes out when a customer is running up and in direct line of site, or when it’s the last flight of the day they can wait until 5 minutes to departure. And agents don’t have to do this. They prioritize moving the plane over getting those last passengers on board.

In fact American will remove passengers from flights before they even miss them, simply because they’re projected to miss the flight, in order to give their seat to another passenger that wants to get on. They call this ‘AURA’ the AUtomated ReAccommodation Tool.

Here, with this Southwest flight, the decision to delay the flight is still one that surprised me.

Generally speaking an airline is more likely to hold your flight if,

  1. a lot of customers are trying to make the connection
  2. there aren’t other options for getting this group to their destination
  3. delaying the flight will have only a limited effect on the operation – further delays, crew timing out, other passengers misconnecting later

And even still, some airlines are more likely to hold a plane for you than others. United’s ConnectionSaver has held planes for over 2,000 passengers in a day.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary you didn’t talk about DL, who has implemented a pretty awful new system in the past year. It’s an automated system which will move your connecting flight (2nd leg) to a later one, if it looks like you might mis-connect. The problem is too many times, the system is wrong, and an experience traveler gets to their connection in time for boarding. The gate agent has already given away the seat, and refuses to let the passenger on their originally ticketed flight.

  2. Yeah I hate AA for this. I was literally walking up to the gate 7 minutes before the departure time, plane still there, internal door still open and gate agent said nope can’t get on. Paid international business class on last flight of day to destination. Had to overnight and wait 24 hours for next flight. It was complete idiocy. And that’s why I fly United.

  3. Gary…
    I need to call you out on the portion of your article saying there were “plenty of seats open later in the day”. Unless you called up the seat availability AS THE DELAY WAS IN PROGRESS the average citizen cannot call up past date seat availability. So please correct me if I am wrong but I believe what you are displaying is some unknown future date seat availability and incorrectly stating its seat availability for the day of the delay. True or False Sir?

  4. Honestly, I don’t know if an airline being willing to hold a plane for a late connection is really a consumer benefit.

    It certainly saves the airline money on overnight hotels, but as a United flier, connection saver makes me get home an hour later than necessary on an already late night of travel a whole lot more than it saves a tight connection for me. YMMV, I guess, but certainly some down side.

  5. Turkish won’t hold even 5 mins to help connecting J pax. Found that out on a NBO-IST-TBS ticket I recently flew. We were on our way with someone from TK who met us at the gate. So we were delayed 11 hours. Then they cancelled our return flight and fought tooth and nail to rebook us on a later flight. I was not impressed, flew business class on 3 tickets with them this month.

  6. Disagree here.. most SWA flights are running at capacity plus LAS is a SWA hub so the crew is probably headed home. SWA just swaps out another aircraft with no disruption to schedule. SWA is notorious for swapping crew so you will most likely not layover where you planned

  7. It may be that flights are delayed to reposition crews. They may be coming in on the delayed flights to Houston and without them, there are other flights that won’t fly that day or the next day. Depending on the airline and their relationships with other airlines, the crew members may be from another airline and I would bet they are as incognito as possible. I’m not sure if this is true but it would be reasonable to me.

  8. Jim A,
    Delta has used an automated rebooking system for over a decade. They advertised years ago that, if you missed your flight, you could get your new boarding pass at any gate reader that wasn’t actively boarding a flight.
    And even though United talks about its connection saver system, other airlines used it before UA’s latest system – and UA itself had a rudimentary system that it used.
    Every airline does what it can to minimize passenger disruption, esp. on international flights but they do have different criteria.
    No airline passenger should have any expectation that any other airline will do a better job than another in holding a flight when you need it.

  9. Once I was on a flight from San Diego to Honolulu that they held for an hour due to one connecting passenger from Las Vegas. And they decided to do this after we had boarded 🙁

  10. Most airlines have an automated reaccommodation system running in the background, and if it deems you’re going to misconnect it will rebook you. I’ve seen it so many times while working at CO & US.
    The airlines claim it’s to be “proactive” but it causes a lot of issues for pax who should have a seat and do not.

  11. @Matthew Weyer
    I don’t know so many people gush over TK. I’ve had similar experiences. Friends have too. I fly about 150K/year on Star Alliance. I will go out of my way to avoid TK.

  12. UA’s ConnectionSaver is one of the many things I love about their operation. In 500k miles on UA, I’ve never missed a single connection. UA has held several flights for me and others, usually flights to HI or Europe (and the last flight of the day). I’ve never been very late, typically a few minutes.

    I’ve had the opposite experience on OneWorld. American and Alaska have been the absolute worst. I swear AA closes their gates way earlier than posted just to piss me off.

  13. Air France held our flight last time when we were connecting in Paris. Flight was delayed by 30 min departing from Dallas and originally had a connection of only 45 min onward to Athens. Had they not held it, the 7 of us would have missed that one and taken the next one, 3 hours later. Funny enough, the one 3 hours later was delayed by an additional 2 hours due to engine problems. If they didn’t hold onto our original flight, there would have been 7 EU261 filed that day. 😉

  14. This is a lie. I flew AA last month at DFW. Our flight was late to arrive and we barely made it. They held the flight on the ground for 3 hours while all the connecting flights landed and passengers arrived

  15. Is there a denied boarding claim if you are rebooked to a later flight but arrive in plenty of time? You have a boarding pass.

  16. i agree with tim says Delta has used an automated rebooking system for over a decade. They advertised years ago that, if you missed your flight, you could get your new boarding pass at any gate reader that wasn’t actively boarding a flight.

  17. @Beachfan – only if the airline fails to follow its own published rules / contract of carriage. So if you present yourself at the gate, for instance, 15 minutes prior to departure and you’re no longer on the flight then yes that would be an involuntary denied boarding.

  18. @ Peter and H Yu: I have a difficult time believing that AA or UA holds a plane for 3 or 1 hour respectively. In my experience it’s usually just a couple of minutes as the gate space etc is needed later. In the case of UA the late night flights (last flight of the day) seem to make up some time to their destination anyway. If ATC gave them a different departure time due to traffic congestion etc., then it’s a different story.
    @Tim Dunn: No, we can’t generalize that one away. There are better airlines and others that don’t care. You know the statistics. But the statistics don’t tell the complete picture. UA will wait for passengers but as with other airlines – there is a better chance that they will wait, when one is a higher status passenger. AA is so focused on their on time departure, that some agents will shut the door right in front of you.

  19. Delta flight from Salt Lake City to Pittsburgh went through Minneapolis. We landed in enough time. The gate was 20 minutes away. We ar in our eighty’s. We got to the date a few minutes before departure time. They closed the door and we watched the plane back away from the gate. The senior agent told us he knew when our plane landed. He claimed thr air traffic controllers have the authority to force the plane to leave early. We had to wait 4hours to get on another flight through Detroit to get to Pittsburgh. Vert disappointing.

  20. Bill Reim,
    All airlines can hold for connections and do.
    United made a lot of noise about how revolutionary their connection saver was when it really didn’t provide any more information than other airlines already had.
    UA might have gained enough more information that IT chose to start protecting some connections than they did before but other airlines did hold for connections.

    We can’t argue who does a better job on holding for connections because we don’t have the data.
    However, the DOT does report the reason for consumer complaints and does include a category at the country level – not carrier specific – for misconnections. Misconnections is always the lowest of the 3 flight problems categories the DOT tracks, well behind cancellations and delays.
    They do provide a category called “flight problems” at the carrier specific level and Southwest always gets the lowest number and percentage of flight problem complaints of the big 4 but that isn’t surprising considering they carry the lowest percentage of connections.
    Delta consistently is #2 in flight problems complaints even though they carry more passengers than United and also carry more connecting passengers.
    American usually is at the highest list of complaints for flight problems followed by United.
    Given that the big 3 are all operating at high on-time rates relative to their history with DL consistently able to stay in first place, AA and UA are clearly misconnecting and ticking off enough passengers via cancellations and delays to keep them out of the first place ranking.

    And WN was the poster child for bad operations in 2022 but United will hold that title in 2023 due to their June 2023 operational meltdown which did result in a huge spike of consumer complaints for every category – delays, cancellations, and misconnections.

  21. Interesting comments: My two cents. You all realize that weather pilots and FAs are not getting paid to sit on the ground, waiting with an open door. Only when the doors are closed/pushback do they start to get paid. Now, FA’s job is already meager, to begin with, so having a three-hour delay on the ground means nobody is getting paid. Airlines that defy the tarmac delay rules can be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger on board the affected flight. Some airports have noise restrictions, such as Long Beach, CA, and they get fined if they do not land between 7 am and 10 pm.
    There are a lot of good comments about the ripple effect, but someone walking to the gate 7 minutes before scheduled departure is …..International/Business/First doesn’t matter. If flying in the last few years has taught us anything, it’s only worsening.
    Once you understand all the moving parts of an Airline, you may be more inclined not to go off on Agents and FAs; they do not know. Scheduling does. Be kind. And, yes, I get annoyed when something like this happens. Then it only becomes, how does the airline remedy the issue? That is a whole other story.

  22. Tim – “Delta consistently is #2 in flight problems”

    Tim #2 – “American usually is at the highest list of complaints for flight problems followed by United.”

    Which is it? Can’t be both.

  23. really?
    there are, wait, wait, 4 big 4 carriers.
    Delta is number 2 behind Southwest.
    United is next
    then American is LAST.

    Was that really that difficult for you to comprehend without seeing a list?

  24. @Tim: It didn’t make any sense to me either. Don’t blame the reader for your unclear writing.

  25. There is a fundamental understanding of the airline industry that is necessary.
    WN has long had the fewest complaints because of their larger point to point network, fewer international routes (which create more operational risk), and their ability to admit and fix problems except when they have massive meltdowns – and any one that comments on the subject should know that.
    Among the big 4 – which was explicit in my post – the “contest” is between AA, DL and UA.
    DL consistently follows WN in lowest complaint metrics which leaves the tossup between AA and UA>
    This year, UA will fall to the bottom because of its June operational meltdown.

  26. Same thing happened to me last night ( Dec 29 2023) at BWI. Flight attendants swore the plane was completely full….after everyone was on board, there were still 20 open seats. Then they announce that we’re waiting for a connecting flight. 20 mins go by Captain says that we are waiting for some additional luggage. Finally, 25 mins later we hear them loading up the luggage….but surprise…..no additional passengers. Take off 45 mins late. Thankfully it was the last flight of the day.
    But gotta wonder who’s freaking luggage was that lost????

  27. Holding flights is one of the main reasons I fly Southwest. Many a night I made it home because Sourhwest held a plane or rerouted me and held the plane which they rerouted me to. I won’t fly United because they will lie telling you they are holding your connection which is not their policy

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