SURVIVOR: How to Make a 15 Minute Connection With Checked Bags

Yesterday American saved my bacon on the way home from Frequent Traveler University and the story reveals a few things about how the airline works and what to do (and not to do) when desperately trying to make a connection so it seemed worth passing along.

Delta often gets the most kudos for running an excellent airline operation, but yesterday at least American delivered at a level I haven’t often seen from a US domestic airline.

Pizza in Motion and I were on the same flight flying from Seattle to Chicago. I was connecting to Washington National and he was connecting on a separate ticket to a United flight to Washington Dulles.

Here is his version of the story, a veritable he-said-she-said so read it.

Our flight was just a few minutes late out of Seattle. We had a long taxi, were number six in line, when a storm came through that we had to wait for. I had an hour in Chicago, Ed had a little less than an hour and would have to change terminals, and we saw our connecting times evaporate.

Our 2:15pm departure didn’t actually take off until about 2:50pm. And our flight time would be a bit longer than usual as we vectored around significant weather across the country.

An 8:15pm scheduled arrival was showing 8:54pm.

  • Ed knew he couldn’t change terminals and turn up for a United flight before the doors closed.
  • He checked my flight to Washington National and saw one seat left for sale. He booked an AAnytime (double miles) award — versus paying $1000! — to grab that seat, and could cancel it as an Executive Platinum at no fee if we made up time.

He had spent 25,000 miles, would wind up with a flight credit from United, and would hopefully make it home same night.

The flight seemed to stretch. 8:54 became 8:55, 8:58, and then 9:01.

Ed couldn’t check in for his American flight.

He was able to get onto gogo wireless internet with his phone while also staying connected on his laptop (I couldn’t seem to log off and then log on with my phone). I suggested he use the American Airlines app to tweet the airline. Executive Platinums have a feature in the app to contact the airline via Twitter, and those communications get priority.

The hope was that while we didn’t think they would hold the flight, they might be willing to hold off closing the door to the jetbridge for a few minutes as we ran to try to make the flight.

At 8:48pm we weren’t yet in a landing pattern. After finally touching down about 9:04pm, the pilot came on to say that we came down onto the farthest runway from our gate and would have to taxi for at least 10 minutes. We were at the gate at 9:17pm.

Meanwhile, our connecting flight never showed delayed. We were going to miss it.

Except… the American twitter team uncovered that it was actually delayed until 9:32pm. We had 15 minutes, so 5 minutes to make it from gate H7 to K8 even without the door being held open.

On the American app my boarding pass no longer showed up. And I saw folks getting cleared off the upgrade list. I thought I might not have a seat any longer.

I jumped up from my seat in row 6, was at the front of the aircraft before anyone had gotten into the aisle. And I ran. Which is tough in loafers (I don’t corner well). I figured if I made it to the gate first, I could get them to hold it a minute or two for Ed. I didn’t have a carryon bag — my first time checking something on a purely domestic itinerary in two years (but had 3 suits, a tuxedo, and had thrown countless amenity kits and pairs of airline pajamas into my suitcase to give away at Frequent Traveler Univiersity). That made it a bit faster, unencumbered.

Ed still wasn’t checked in for the flight.

We got to the gate, and they gave us both boarding passes. Twitter had been in touch with the gate, and we walked onto the plane while boarding was still in progress. The flight was completely sold out, but Ed hadn’t been cancelled out.

About that checked bag… it made it. I have no idea how they managed it.

I tweeted American, but not through the app. I never heard back. Maybe I’m on their blacklist and Ed isn’t. Or maybe it’s just the priority that American gives to tweets sent through their app by Executive Platinums.

American held my seat, and my upgrade. I got home when I never expected to — I saw the Hilton O’Hare beckoning for me — and my checked bag even managed to make it too.

Sometimes it’s an airline’s operation that matters even more than its miles, at least that’s how I felt on this trip.

And this, by the way, is what Uber is for.. a snapshot of a portion of the cab line at Washington National airport at 12:45 a.m.

While waiting 4 minutes for my pickup not a single cab came by.

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, 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. Although officially I don’t think uber is allowed to pick up at DCA. Unofficially there are ways.

  2. OKY — I think Uber does the same thing as Red Top Cab at DCA and picks you up from the main road on the arrivals level, not from the pick up area (which is the road shown in Gary’s photo).

  3. What the app says when you try to schedule a uber pickup at DCA is that the driver will call you to arrange a pick up site.

  4. @Rui N – that’s for UberX only because DCA has been cracking down on UberX and similar services. But the standard sedan service doesn’t get that message.

  5. @Storm – correct – you walk across to the center island for pickup, just as if you were having a friend pick you up, the curb immediately outside the baggage claim area is for taxis waiting to pick up any passenger only.

  6. Doesn’t DCA have some ridiculous rule like your taxi can’t *wait* for passengers at DCA, and cannot return to DCA within 40 mins of having last been there, or… something? I can’t seem to find any information on it now. :/

  7. I recently had a checked bag make it on a 5-minute AA connection in Boston (I was ending a trip with ANC-PDX-ORD-BOS-LAX and had to check my bag in ANC because it’s gotten too big). Boy was I surprised it made it, even if it was just the next plane over. AA twitter greatly helped me out there.

  8. Nice post. I was on your flight ORD-DCA. We boarded late because the crew had a late arrival into ORD. Not to diminish the Twitter team, but that was why we couldn’t board. We started boarding shortly after the crew arrived. But, I do know that the gate agents waited to drop seats and clear upgrades as they knew the plane would be delayed given the crew and they wanted to give all delayed connecting passengers a fighting chance.

  9. Interesting to know that Uber can pick up out of DCA. I’d never been really sure. Then again; I’ve never had a reason to try – I call Red Top as soon as the jetbridge is connected and they’re usually there by the time I get to the pickup lane.

  10. I’ve notice that sometimes on Flightaware it will show the flight status departure time different that what the official time is. I also like to track the inbound flight so you know the true departure time. You know they can’t unload and turn the plane in say 15 minutes. I think what helped you at the end of the day was elite status and access to that app and sitting on row 6. If you had been in the back of the plane you wouldn’t have made it. Also I think what might have helped your bag is if it was tagged at a priority or elite member bag.

  11. Am I the only one that jumps on the metro? I know it’s faster to have a cab, but even with a line switch to go to Arlington-west, I’d still rather metro it than participate in feeding the cabby.

  12. The only bad part to this story is you didn’t have time to grab food at Tortas Frontera at O’Hare, K4. Almost would be worth the delay!

  13. @jr without the twitter team Ed wouldn’t have been on the flight — he hadn’t even been checked in until they handed him a boarding pass at 919pm (4 minutes after scheduled departure and 6 minutes before the next departure update projected).

  14. Kudos to AA, the twitter team, and their hot bag operations.

    It’s like the one time I had to run to connect in DEN, the gate agent said to take any seat because she needed to close the flight. The purser, before I caught my breath, said “Mr. ptahcha, we have been waiting for you” and showed me to my preserved first class seat. That was service in the olden days of 2004 on United. Can’t count on that anymore.

  15. I left a laptop in backseat pocket (3A) of an AA flight with a 3 hour connect at DFW. Completely forgot about it. (No card on my laptop or name). AFTER a 2 hour nap at the mini suites at DFW (flight left PHX at 5am) I head to plane for connect flight, lo and behold laptop awaiting me when I boarded. Superb superb superb AA customer service.

  16. @DaninSTL, that’s because Flightaware shows the air time (wheels-up/wheels down), whereas the official time is the blocked gate-to-gate time.

    I once had a similar experience where I was shocked my checked bag made it – I had about a six minute connection in PHX on US Airways, and had a checked bag for some reason. Was in F on my inbound flight, first person off the plane, literally sprinted from the high A’s to the first B concourse, made it to the gate as they were closing the door, and the plane pushed back a minute later. Somehow my bag was waiting for me when we landed, I have no idea how.

  17. Are we all sure that in these miracle bag connection stories that the bag was actually with you on the first flight and had not gone out on an earlier flight than you did?

  18. I know I’m late to the party here, but it literally blows my mind that everyone doesn’t use Uber at Reagan. Even if there is no line, half the cabs won’t go to the district and the other half have “broken credit card machines”.

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