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What happens if you miss your flight connection (and it’s your fault)?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Consumer reporter and ombudsman

What’s the correct thing to do if you miss your flight connection? The answer depends on why you failed to board your connecting flight. But it’s a question that Alla Machavariane is asking.

She has an unusual tale to tell. Alla says she and her husband missed their flight connection in Chicago while sitting at the gate in full view of the aircraft and crew members.

The duo is unsure why they never heard any announcements or noticed all the passengers around them boarding the plane. But they believe Spirit Airlines is somehow responsible for their missed flight connection and want the airline to reimburse them $2,200. That’s the cost of the new tickets they were forced to buy to get home.

But what caused the couple to miss their flight connection? 

That is the $2,200 question.

Alla’s case highlights a fine line that our advocacy team walks every day. Sometimes the stories we hear just don’t add up. So how do we help these consumers? And what should you do if you miss a flight connection?

Let’s find out. 

Plenty of time to spare before the connecting flight 

Alla says this mysterious turn of events capped off what was a really lovely tropical vacation. 

“We had flown to Cancun from Portland without any problems at all,” Alla explained. “The week we spent in Mexico was wonderful. We didn’t expect any problems when we headed to the airport to fly home.”

The couple flew from Cancun to Chicago with no delay on Spirit Airlines. From there, they had a connecting flight to their home in Portland, Ore. They had plenty of time between the two flights — five hours. 

Everything was going smoothly. But in Chicago, things veered toward the twilight zone.

“At O’hare, we found our gate,” Alla recalled. “We showed our tickets to the agent and asked him if it was the right gate. He said yes, and we sat there for about five hours.”

How did we miss our flight connection?!

Alla said that at some point, they noticed the departure time had come and gone, but they were still sitting there.

“We had been listening for information about boarding our flight to Portland, but there wasn’t one,” she remembered. “Nobody made an announcement or verified that all passengers were on board.”

The couple asked a Spirit Airlines employee for help. And that’s when they learned their flight had already left without them. 

“How did we miss our flight connection while sitting at the gate?” Alla asked. “No one confirmed that all the passengers were on the airplane or made an announcement!”

When the bewildered passengers asked Spirit Airlines what to do, the airline offered a replacement flight two days later.

Don’t expect an airline to pay for new flights on another carrier

Alla says that there was no way that they could wait for two days to get home. So she booked a last-minute flight home on Alaska Airlines. That flight cost the couple an additional $1,100 per person. 

When they returned home, Alla made a formal request to Spirit Airlines. She wanted a refund for the missed flight connection, and she expected Spirit Airlines to provide $2,200 in reimbursement for the new flights. 

Not surprisingly, Spirit rejected both requests. 

Fact: There are no rules or regulations in the United States that would require an airline to reimburse a passenger for a new flight on another airline after a missed connection.

The Department of Transportation requires the airline to put a passenger who has missed their connection onto the next available flight (on their fleet). Unfortunately, this substitution can be hours or even days later. The DOT does not indicate a specific deadline for this new flight. 

Alternatively, the airline can refund the passenger for the missed leg of the journey and allow the traveler to find an alternative flight. 

However, those rules pertain to missed flights resulting from something within the airline’s control. In this case, there was no indication that Spirit Airlines had any culpability in Alla’s missed flight connection. 

Unwilling to give up on her desire to hold Spirit Airlines responsible for the extra $2,200 it cost the couple to get home, Alla sent her request for help to our advocacy team. 

How did this couple miss their flight connection?

When I read through Alla’s request for help, I struggled to think of how the events could have unraveled in the way she reported.

We’ve all waited at an airport gate. Once boarding begins, it certainly isn’t done silently or covertly. Passengers crowd the boarding area. Announcements are made. It’s pretty difficult to miss an entire plane load of passengers all around you gather their things and leave you behind.

I tried to imagine a scenario that explained Alla’s missed flight connection.

So I asked Alla if they had possibly been sitting at the wrong gate for those five hours.

No, Alla assured me that they were at the correct gate. They double-checked.

I asked if the couple had walked away or been distracted. Alla assured me they hadn’t, but….

Did daydreaming at the gate cause this missed flight?

“We were exhausted, and we dreamed of being home very soon,” she offered. “But why didn’t the agent at the gate ask for missing passengers?”

I asked if there was any possibility that the couple fell asleep as they were “dreaming” of being home. 

“No,” Alla assured me. “We were just daydreaming at the gate and talking on the phone to our children. We never fell asleep.” 

Alla offered no further explanation, and I could concoct no other reasonable possibilities for their missed flight connection.

But since Alla seemed genuinely bewildered, I reached out to our executive contact at Spirit Airlines. I hoped his team could fill in some of the blanks in this case.

Asking Spirit Airlines for help

The Spirit Airlines resolution team investigated Alla’s experience, and they were puzzled, too, by the mysterious missed flight connection.

Alla and her husband had arrived five hours before their connecting flight in Chicago, and the gate never changed. But they had ended up being no-shows for the connection.

Spirit also had no explanation for why this couple missed the flight if they had been at the gate. 

Unfortunately, all signs pointed to passenger error. The Allas were at the wrong gate, sleeping, or they were somewhere else in the airport. But an unavoidable fact became clear: There was no way that this couple was alert and awake at the correct gate during boarding.

What to do if you miss your flight connection

Most frequent flyers have missed a connecting flight at some point in their travels. That certainly isn’t an unusual occurrence. But missing a flight connection while ostensibly sitting at the gate just yards from the aircraft is quite unusual. 

To decrease the financial impact of a missed flight connection, here’s what you need to do before, during, and after. 

Set an alarm

If you’ve got a long layover between flights, you might be tempted to take a cat nap at the gate or in the lounge. Or you may pass the time shopping, enjoying a meal, or a few cocktails. However you choose to pass the hours, you must remain aware of the scheduled boarding time for your flight connection. Setting your phone’s alarm for 30 minutes before boarding will ensure you don’t miss your connecting flight.

Make sure your airline has your correct contact information

When you book an airline ticket, it’s essential to make sure that the carrier has your correct contact information. The reason? Most airlines will text or email you regular updates about your scheduled departure time. If you’ve left the gate area during your wait between flights, it’s imperative that you check your phone for updates and reminders about your departures. You’ll only receive these updates if the airline has your correct contact information. Note: Flight delays can be reversed, so don’t stray too far from your gate, or you might return to find that the aircraft has left without you.

Alert the airline ASAP

If the worst has happened or is about to happen, and you’ve missed your flight connection, you must immediately inform the airline. You don’t want the airline to mark you as a no-show for a connecting flight. If you’re a no-show, the airline will not owe you a refund and all remaining legs on your itinerary will be canceled. So make your way to the closest airline counter or call and alert the carrier of the problem so you can protect your reservation. 

Beware of third-party booking agents

Often, third-party booking agents like Expedia or Priceline will build you an itinerary with a series of one-way tickets to get you the lowest rate. If all goes well with your trip, this can work out fine. But if one of your flights is delayed and you miss a connection to an unrelated one-way flight, you’ll find yourself in a tricky situation. The DOT’s rules that say the carrier must put you on the next available flight only apply if your reservation is on one connected record locator. If you choose to book one-way tickets, you should consider travel insurance to protect all the unconnected parts of your trip. 

You can use a site such as InsureMyTrip to compare various travel insurance policies. 

The bottom line

It is unclear what happened that caused the couple in this story to miss their flight connection while sitting at the gate. But in the end, Spirit Airlines decided to offer a goodwill gesture: It refunded the missed flight segment. The airline rejected the request for reimbursement for the new flights on Alaska Airlines.

And unfortunately, the answer to this missed flight mystery will likely never be known. 🤔 (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in MarketWatch, Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Boston Globe, CBS News, National Geographic, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on TV reporting on a situation. :) Michelle is also the travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. She is also a member of the Society of American Travel Writers. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.