Why Did My Connecting Flight Leave Early Without Me? (Ask Cranky)

Hi kids. It’s time for another episode of “Ask Cranky.” Hooray! This time, the question comes from Florida, or as a friend of mine calls it, “America’s wang.” It’s a great question.

Last week, I finally got the chance to try out Melbourne’s much-acclaimed addition of US Airways. We were caught in the nasty weather up in New York which severely delayed our flight home, but somehow managed to pull up to a gate in Charlotte at 9:53, hopeful of making our 10:09 connection to Melbourne. We tore through the airport and arrived at 10:03, only to find the boarding door closed and our plane pushing back (The only flight to leave even close to on-time during our entire trip…).

My question is about this practice of leaving early when connecting passengers are in the terminal. They had to know our flight had landed — why not hold the plane until at least the scheduled departure time? I know the days of holding a flight for additional passengers are long gone, but surely just waiting until the scheduled departure time is an option?

(As usual, the airline refused reimbursement for our hotel expenses because our original delay was weather-related. Although I’d argue the real reason for our stranding was the early departure of our connecting flight.)

Ryan A – Melbourne, Florida

This is without question one of the most frustrating things that can happen to a traveler. For an airline, it becomes an operations call on how to handle the situation, and unfortunately, it sounds like you got on the wrong side of this one.

The Ask Crankybad news is that they don’t technically owe you anything, because the rules specifically state that you have to be at the gate 15 minutes prior to departure, even if it’s their fault that you weren’t there.

So why would they have left early? There are a couple of reasons that come to mind, one more likely than others.

The more likely scenario is that they had a ton of people trying to get on that flight from earlier delays or cancellations. As soon as that 15 minute mark hit, they were free to cancel confirmed seats and put other people onboard. Sucks for you, great for them.

The less likely but still quite possible scenario is that there could have been extenuating circumstances. Maybe the weather was rolling in and they had to get out early to beat it. Maybe the pilots were dangerously close to timing out on their duty day so they wanted to get on their way.

If neither of those were the case, then they probably would have looked at your arrival time and held the plane for just a couple minutes. After all, that plane was spending the night in Melbourne, so being a couple of minutes late wouldn’t have impacted any other connections.


35 Responses to Why Did My Connecting Flight Leave Early Without Me? (Ask Cranky)

  1. Those were two good answers to why a plane leaves early. If a plane has someone sitting in all the seats, they is no reason to delay departure if everything is a ‘go’. Sadly it may not be the people who have a ticket for that flight if they were delayed in some way.

    A storm rolling in will get things going quickly also.

  2. Ed Casper says:

    It seems to me that the best response a carrier can make to this problem is brutal honesty. If the plane was full already, tell the customer. If the crew was close to timing out, tell the customer exactly that. If the flight left early to avoid incoming weather, say so. I truly believe most people will be understanding if they’re simply told the unvarnished truth.

    • Ed, Sadly Airlines suck at this. I think partially they do it because people would jump on their case if they were given more information. “The crew was about ready to time out? Why would I have wanted to get on that plane to begin with?”

  3. Tom says:

    What I don’t get is how they don’t reimburse people for this. I don’t care what “the rules” say, if you are late for a flight because of the airline, then they should be responsible for the consequences.

    This entire industry is messed up from the bottom up due to the fact that it is one of the most government controlled industries out there, so it’s really just a lose-lose situation. If the airlines did assume responsibility for these situations, they would go bankrupt and be back to begging for federal dollars.

  4. BN says:

    Every airline’s official policy is to close the gate 5 or 10 mins before the scheduled departure time for an on-time departure. However, given the weather scenario on that particular day, it’s more likely that the flight must have been boarded full before the connecting pax arrived. Confirmed seats must have been given away to other standby customers after a certain threshold time before departure.

  5. Tony says:

    If the airline sold the connection and it fell with in the domestic minimum connect time, then the customer is guaranteed all the way to his final destination. Did the bags make it on to the connecting flight? That would be the most important question….because if they did, the airline has just stated by action that the customers connection was in fact guaranteed. The 15 min rule applies for CHECK-IN at an origin station.

    If the plane pulled from the gate prior to official push time, and if the connecting customers bags made the flight I would say regardless of weather that it was a bonafied good connection and the customer would be due DBC I would bet that the flight was filled up with commuting non-rev crews going home, it was the last flight and they wanted to get as many NR PAX as possible. As an insider this very noble, as a traveler this is completely unfair and I see it all the time.

    Personally I would file a complaint with the airline as well as the DOT.

    My advice to anyone connecting to a flight…if at all possible avoid connecting into the last flight of the day.

    • CF says:

      “The 15 min rule applies for CHECK-IN at an origin station.”

      That’s not true. From the US Airways Contract of Carriage:

      To help ensure on?time performance, US Airways requires that customers be present at the boarding gate or on the aircraft at least 15 minutes (60 minutes Europe and Middle East, 30 minutes all other international, 5 minutes for US Airways Shuttle flights) before the scheduled departure time of the flight
      even if the customers have already checked in for the flight at a location designated for such purpose. Failure to meet this requirement may result in cancellation of the customer’s reservations and make the customer ineligible for denied boarding compensation.

  6. Gene says:

    When this happens to you, always ask if anyone was offered or given VDB/IDB compensation. If so and if VDB/IDB would have been due to someone if you had made it to the gate on time, you are due the VDB/IDB compensation. The airline certainly isn’t going to voluntarily give you the compensation, so be sure to ask if the plane went out full, was oversold, etc. to determine if you may be due compensation.

    • CF says:

      I’m not so sure about that one. If you didn’t make it to the gate on time, then there isn’t anything due to you, as far as I know. Where do you see that in the rules?

  7. I have another reason that a plane won’t be held for you: passenger discontent.

    I was on a USAir DC-9 (this was back in the late-80s) and the pilot came on and said they’d be holding for some connecting passengers as this was at the end of the day. The load factor was uber low (30-40%) but there was a general sound of discontent (and as a preteen I booed pretty loudly, I WANTED TO GET HOME.) and the pilot called up the operations guys and got us sent out.

    I hindsight it was a bad thing for the passengers to do, but it happened. I seriously doubt they’d quite take that into account now adays.

    • CF says:

      I think that’s something they might take into account for longer delays, but this plane pushed early. Had it waited until departure time, they would have made it, just barely. So I don’t think that was the case here.

  8. Wes says:

    I experienced something like this once, and it seems like US did offer some compensation when they weren’t required to…. SNA-PHX leg was delayed quite a bit because someone jumped the fence at SNA and was running right down the middle of the runway. When we finally arrive in PHX and were taxiing to the gate, I saw the plane I was hoping to get on to DSM still sitting at its gate. Unfortunately it was one of the longest be-boarding processes I have ever been a part of, especially considering that we were on a CRJ. Once finally off of that plane, I moved as fast as I possibly could to the next “wing” of gates over to the DSM gate. Looking at my watch, I thought I just might make it as the scheduled departure wasn’t for about 12 more minutes. However, as I finally got to the gate, not only was the plane pushed back, but it was gone, still 7 minutes prior to departure (this was the last of 2 daily flights to DSM). The gate agents had no explanation and were not interested in discussing the matter one bit. I asked and was offered a seat on the only other flight yet to depart that night to anywhere even close to DSM (MSP), but decided against that. Now here is the part that makes me curious, US did give me a hotel voucher for the night. Technically, would they not be required to do so given that the delay in SNA was out of their control?

    As it was, I came to find out in the next few hours that a hotel voucher on a Thursday night in PHX is worth next to nothing. After a few hours of standing down in baggage claim using every “hotel” phone in sight, calling every hotel listed only to find that this voucher would not be honored, I attempted to find someone with US Airways who could help me. Unfortunately, by this time everything was closed up. In the end, I rented a car and drove right back to SNA, climbing into bed at 0500 and saying to heck with the entire trip. I do sympathize with people who get stranded in a “middle” city, it sucks.

    Sorry for the long story. Was US required to provide lodging for the night, or did they do so simply out of goodwill? Or perhaps a better question, did they provide me that voucher just to get rid of me at the gate, knowing full well that it wouldn’t get me very far once I was out of their hair?

    • CF says:

      “Was US required to provide lodging for the night, or did they do so simply out of goodwill?”

      If the delay in Orange County really was out of their control (crazy dude running down the runway generally counts), then they wouldn’t have needed to give you a hotel. And it sound like they didn’t!

  9. AC says:

    I’ve been stranded by US Airways in Charlotte a few times. The most recent was MEM-CLT-BOS. The flight leaving MEM was delayed but we were told we would make it on time to connect. Flight tracker (on my Iphone) had us getting in with enough time to get from the E gates to the B gates. We were doing fine until the MEM-CLT flight had to abort landing and try again (rain/wind/something). Finally we landed and I had 25 minutes. I finally got my bag (planeside check) and started running-realizing my 5 months pregnant self wasn’t going to make it running I flagged down a cart and he hightailed it to the B-gates. I was at the gate at 10:02pm for a 10:15 departure. Plane was gone-not just pushed back, but GONE. The gate agent was gone too.

    I went to special services and they tried to tell me it was weather, blah blah. They rebooked me for the first flight out in the morning. Then I asked for a hotel voucher-they wouldn’t give it to me at first, but I calmly explained that as a Platinum Preferred flyer they OWED me an explanation on my plane pushed well before the 10 gate rule, and if they gave my seat away, just be honest. They did give me a hotel voucher (for an ok hotel I might add), and the three people behind me in line (all on the same flight) also got the vouchers.

    The next day I email customer service with a scathing complaint and got a free round trip ticket out of the deal too.

    They had given my seat away thinking there was no way I would get from E to B in 25 minutes.

  10. robert says:

    The sad thing about this is Ryan et al were delayed through no fault of their own but tried their hardest to get to the connecting flight. In other words, they were trying to compensate for the delay by themselves but received no reward for the effort. They should get the compensation (or refund).

  11. Donald says:

    Dear Cranky, First of let me explain where I coming from. I have spent over thirty years in the pointy end of the aluminum shipping tubes, ie; This is the Captain speaking. Why does this happen? Blame, Lizzy Dole, former Sec of DOT, former Director of the American Red Cross, former Senator from NC. When she instituted the tracking of of departure and arrival times of flights, the days of holding a flight for connections came to an end. From then on pilots, agents, dispatchers, mechanics etc, have had answer for even a one minute delay off the gate. Remember that time is BRAKE release, not door closure. The baggage holds must be closed, the closeout data transmitted to the a/c (ie; weight and balance, which means the fuel load, bag count and passenger count all must have been sent from the various department to load control), the flight attendants must have completed their safety briefings and reported to the Captain “Ready to Taxi” and of course the flight crew must check it for correctness and enter the data into the flight management system. So the gate closeout has to be done before the departure time. Pity the poor someone who contributes to even one minute delay, they will soon be doing a rug dance in front of their manager very soon. My best story about assigning the delay happened in JFK. I was getting my paperwork and was ease dropping on a group discussing a delayed flight. The fueler said how can I fuel a plane that’s not here? The mechanic said I can’t fix a plane till the pilot calls in the problem. The bus driver said I can’t drive the bus to the plane, till the agent says the flight is released! The agent said, I can’t release the flight till maintenance says its released for flight. Then someone said, Lets call it a blame the crew! Everyone agreed and walked away. That is why there is the 15 minute rule. Getting the OK to be late takes an act of God. It means calling someone, who will probably say I’ve got to call my boss first and remember if it’s happening to you it will happening to several others to! So take an off schedule operation and the demand of being on time, include hub and spoke and someone missing a connection will happen. Thanks for the chance to vent.

    • Donald,
      Thank you for your discription of what’s going on behind the scenes. What a great example of the law of untended consequences. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone would care if their plane left ontime, most people only care if they arrive ontime. A smart airline would make appropriate adjustments for this if they didn’t have to report the departure time. E.g. The last flight of the day out of a given hub would have an extra 20 minutes of block time to adjust for late connections. But since we’ve got all these rules the airlines have been micromanaged into a mess.

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  13. Travelnate says:

    here’s a sneaky trick by Piedmont & PSA agents.

    You get to your gate, as an agent, and see its oversold by, lets say 6.

    Here’s what we train them to do:

    1. Look up the Unticketed list for passengers holding space on that flight but not ticketed, cancel those reservations.
    2. Look up the inbound connection list, determine who is at risk of missing the flight.
    3. If 1 & 2 fail, look at ways to get people to their destination, solicit volunteers.

    I will be ya $1,000 that the customer was in fact a #2.

  14. SAN Greg says:

    It’s the underside of all of the gloating about “having the best on-time record!”. This statistic plays to people’s sense of reliability and minimal inconvenience. What the statistics don’t show is the reality that the depth of inconvenience is of a much higher magnitude for someone who misses a flight by a couple of minutes and ends up waiting for a flight hours later or even the next day (as in the case presented).

    One airline seems particularly hung up on this lately and has dispatchers who feel that the trade off of touting “best on-time major airline” outweighs gross inconvenience to pax who miss a connection by a few minutes. This has happened to my spouse and myself due to flights THAT LEFT THE GATE EARLY (same guilty airline). Never mind the fact that the flight can push back a few minutes late and still be considered “on-time”. Thanks for posting this “Ask Cranky” question, as this just happened this week and we are fuming about it. This practice appears to be chronic at this airline.

  15. ATLguy says:

    Even if this flight closed 10 minutes prior to departure… that’s 9:59 for a 10:09. He says he rolled up at 10:03, let’s say his watch is 2 minutes slow from the time used by the carrier. It’s bad weather, people likely have been misconnecting and it’s supposed to be a full flight plus many standbys. I’ve done this before at my mainline carrier in that situation – give the pilot a load sheet for a full boat, they go ahead and can do their weight and balance calculations before boarding ends. At a few minutes before flight close, check your inbound connects. You see somebody isn’t going to make it. Call up the first few standbys. At flight close, remove no-shows, clear that number of standbys. At 8.5 minutes prior to departure, can be going down the jetway with the last few pax. Get them on the plane, pilot already has W&B done, get the All Set, and off they go. Easy with a full flight even to be rolling out of the gate 3-4 minutes before departure time, even closing on time.

  16. frank says:

    Goes to show you……….statistics play an important role in these decisions. The DOT statistics show THE ON-TIME PERFORMANCE of the airlines, but has never shown the AMOUNT OF MISCONNECTS per month.
    Which is more important, to be on-time or be late with connectors?

    Secondly, on late flights into hubs, I have to tell you. You people board like you’re picking out furniture. NO ONE listens to the announcement to quickly take your seats. Stow your items quickly. We’re late, every minute helps to get going, but to get going, you need to SIT DOWN. You’re beyond, slow.

  17. Sean says:

    I flew on Southwest from MSP to PHX via DEN last October. There were many delays due to weather and runway construction at MSP at the time. Our flight was delayed and the Southwest gate crew keep us up to date every 10 to 15 minutes on its status. They also stated that those connecting to LAX and PHX would make their connections, as they would hold those planes for us. The agent didn’t say this once, but he said this every 10 to 15 minutes for 2 hours. When we landed in DEN, about 10 to 15 of us found out that our PHX flight left on time, about 60 minutes before we arrived. As you can guess, we swarmed the gate agent in DEN saying ‘what the heck’ among other things. Luckily, they gave me and others hotel vouchers at the Marriott close to the airport with a departure in the morning.

    The LAX flight was held as those on that flight were quickly shuffled to it’s gate.

    In MSP, I was amazed at the communication from the gate agents. Too bad the folks in DEN didn’t get hear what they were saying to us – or maybe they did and gave us the nice hotel for compensation. The next day I flew home surrounded by the Northern AZ University Women’s soccer team. I must say, not a bad trip home under the circumstances.

  18. Angela says:

    I had a similar situation hapen to me on a trip coming from Houston to Atlanta back on January 11th. I got to the gate at exactly 14 minutes before departure and the plane was GONE.. I had arrived and checked my luggage over an hour earlier but got stuck in the security line for what seemed like eternity. They KNEW I was there, they had already boarded my luggage..

    Really inconvenienced me because I then had to call my friend to come BACK to the airport, pick me up and we had hours with nothing to do until I was able to board a flight about 3 hours later. WHich also meant I arrived back home to my children 3 hours later then promised…

    I still do not understand why they left so early. The lady never did give me a good explanation. Just that she will get me on the next flight.. I believe airlines do these things because they know they can get away with it :(

    • Ben says:

      You called a friend to come back and kill time with you for a mere three hour delay? That’s just weird. Most would just relax airside and wait for the next flight, and again at only three hours you were quite fortunate.

      And another tip: When flying never promise your kids or family you’ll be home at a certain time. The kid card doesn’t fly, three hours is nothing to call Congress about.

  19. SEAN says:

    In 2005 I flew EWR/ LAX on Contenental. It was the first flight out at 6:45, wich I intentionally chose. Got to the airport three hours early with my girlfriend figguring we could sail through all the lines. To our surprise & dismay it took over two hours to get through everything & arive at the gate with bearly an hour till departure. We grabbed a quick bite & proceited to the gate. After about half an hour there was an anouncement that the gate was swiched & everyone there moved on mass. Thankfully the new gate was directly across from the old one making it easy to swich. After all that the flightwas ontime.

    I don’t know what was more exausting, the 5.5 hour flight or getting through Newark.

  20. Another reason why gate staff are anxious to close the door: Fear of the repercussions from management in case of even a one minute delay. Many managers say that the A/C MUST be closed ten minutes before departure, even if there are people missing.

  21. f9 ohio says:

    ” Just Saying” is absolutly correct. It’s a judgement call on this one but either way you play it someone is unhappy. For those of us who work at an airline who cares, or at least one that used to, two things happen after you take even a one minute delay. First would be you spend the next fifteen minutes of your life coding the dealy in multiple systems and writing paragraphs to explain the situation, second once again working for an airline that gives a shit you get a personal email account which they not only send you up spirited company stories and ceo religious babel with but they also send you personal emails asking about delays when they have questions. So lets put all the cards on the table here, stressful, fast paced gate, either unhappy family or unhappy management, and ten bucks an hour. I feel for the family everytime but I’d bet that flight was oversold to begin with and that those workers really didn’t want to hear it at the end of thier shift. Given enough time, enough pay-cuts, and enough emails, the airlines will make even the softest person jaded.

  22. Old airline guy says:

    First of all, let me say that I used to do this job. I worked in the ramp tower of a major airline and it was my job to keep up with late inbound connections and offer advice as to hold for or leave without the connecting passengers. Where I worked, there were no hard and fast rules-save two. First, unless there were no other ways around it, hub to hub trips were not delayed. Secondly, the first flights (or first bank) of the day were not held for late red-eyes. If either one of these type of flights were delayed, the effect would ripple though out the entire system. As for the other flights, all factors were taken into account. Some factors included: are there any unaccompanied minors or special needs passengers on the flight; is there enough turn time available to burn at the terminating station based on a late arrival that won’t effect an on time arrival at the next station; are there other ways of getting the passengers to their destinations in a reasonable amount of time; is it the last flight of the day to that destination; where does the airplane and crew go next and how will a late departure effect other flights to other cities; and finally, how many connections are there to one particular flight. However, as I recall, crew timing out was not one of them. Our mantra, believe it or not, was the Mr. Spock mantra – the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I’m sure you get the picture. Again, as someone who helped play a role in the decision to hold or go, it was not an easy job. Even after I offered advice to the coordinator who ultimately made the decision, I always asked myself did I have all the information available at the time the call was made. While I am not defending or condemning US Airways, I’m sure that they had a very specific reason or reasons to leave without the connection.

  23. f9 ohio says:

    “Just sayin” has the right idea here. Three things happen after a delay if you work for an airline that cares, or atleast ones that used to. First off if you happen to be even of lead importance your cell phone goes off in your pocket with the powers that be wondering what the hold up is, second you waste the next fifteen minutes of your life coding delays in multiple systems with far fetched numbers and paragraphs, and if that wasn’t enough the good airlines have this thing called email, not sure if you’ve heard of it, but each person gets their own personal company one, that way they can follow up with an email. All in all you feel for the family everytime but someone will be unhappy either way in these situations and i’m going to go out on a limb and assume in this case the flight was probably oversold to begin with. So let’s recap, stressfull gate, unhappy family or unhappy company, ten dollars an hour, phone in the pocket ready to go off, another night leaving late, email alerts alerting, humm The airlines can make even the softest person jaded, I see it everyday

  24. f9 ohio says:

    And a quick response to something Gene wrote up above, I’m sorry buddy but it wouldn’t make a difference if the flight was oversold by 32 people or not, if you’re not at the gate within the allowed time set forth by your airline of travel ( usually found online or in the ticket jacket) then you’re not entitled to a voucher. Same would go if you don’t meet the check in requirements at the ticket counter. Your flight could once again be oversold by 32, but if you try to check in at the ticket counter with 25 minutes left til departure and the requirement is 30 minutes then once again there will be no magical voucher awaiting you. Now if you meet all check in and gate requirements and still cannot get on a plane you were confirmed for, that’s a different story. If you once again met all the requirements and the airline does not first attempt to ask for volunteers or hand you the notice of overbooking flights rules and regulations then once again sure you have a complaint, other than that how about we educate the public with truth next time instead of what you believe might be true. Oh, and I know 32 sounds alittle ridiculous but take a gander at the ATL-LIM Peru route during early and mid summer, not that uncommon let me tell you.

  25. It was a 21-hour nightmare to get from New Haven, CT to Gainesville, FL, thanks to US Air. US Air is the only airline flying to the tiny airport at New Haven and it does so from Philadelphia. I was the first one to check in at the airport. When I did so the weather was great and I asked about Philadelphia weather: no problems. Yet my flight was delayed over one hour. My flight from Philadelphia to Orlando, FL (easier to get there than Gainesville, so I often use that airport) was supposed to leave at 1:40 PM from terminal C. I arrived at terminal F, had to take a shuttle bus from F to C, and still managed to arrive to C well before 1:40 PM. As a matter of fact I saw my US Air airplane at the gate when I was leaving the bus. I run like a madman and totally out of breath reached the gate. The agent there informed me that I was too late and the airplane was pulling out of the gate. I looked at the time and it was 1:33, 7 minutes before scheduled departure time. Quite rudely the agent told me that 1:40 is the time for take off and not for leaving the gate, that she was closing the gate, and that to get help I would have to go to customer service at another gate. I did so. There was a looong line moving very slowly with only two or three (usually two) agents servicing it. It took over an hour to reach an agent. I told her that I was quite flexible, and she could fly me not only to Orlando but also to Gainesville, Jacksonville, or Tampa. When she could find nothing for the same day, I expanded to Tallahassee. Still nothing. I asked for booking at another airline even paying a surcharge (I had to arrive the same day). Supposedly she searched (don’t really believe it) and found nothing. She offered standby in any of the airports I mentioned but told me my chances were not good. Desperately I asked for even further airports. She was finally able to give me a sit to a 6:00 PM flight to Miami. I accepted that as well a standby pass for my best chance which was Jacksonville (I would be 2nd in the standby list). Of course I did not get into the Jacksonville flight. The Miami flight was delayed to 7:30 PM and then even more. We finally boarded the plane about 8:30 PM. When inside the plane, bad weather hit and the airport gets closed. The pilot informs us that this is expected to cause a one-hour delay. Around 9:45 PM the airport opens again, but the pilot informs us that for some reason they were giving priority to the airplanes behind us. It was around 10:30 PM when we finally took off. I arrived at Miami airport around 12:40 AM. The only positive experience in this nightmare was with Avis. They seamlessly changed my initial Orlando airport reservation first to Jacksonville airport and then to Miami airport only with a small increase in price. And their Miami airport office is open 24 hours, so I was able to get a car and drive to Gainesville, arriving at about 6:30 AM (original arrival time would have been 6:00 PM the day before).

    I find it interesting that almost everybody sharing a horror story here is talking about US Air. I should also mention that in one of my waits at a gate I overheard two US Air pilots talking. One said with frustration: “The airplane is still not here”. The other responded: “And this is news?”

    I will need to travel to New Haven again. As US Air is the only choice, I will be flying to La Guardia or Newark with another airline and driving from there (much shorter drives than Miami to Gainesville). And I will never again fly US Air if I can help it (meaning I will pay more for other airlines).

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