For any traveller, and especially for business travellers, making a connection between flights can be a case of when things run wonderfully smoothly or, from time to time, when things go unavoidably wrong.
At Frankfurt Airport, in a nondescript building adjacent to the bustling main terminal, a dedicated team of Star Alliance staff are tasked with monitoring flight connections – that is, passengers arriving into Frankfurt on one Star Alliance airline, and journeying onward aboard another Star Alliance service.
When an incoming flight is delayed and an onward connection is at risk, the Connection Service team springs into action to expedite passengers from one flight to another, keeping their journey on-track: and their checked bags travelling with them, because nobody wants to be left waiting at the baggage carousel.
Where delays are more severe, this team also assists with the rebooking of passengers onto new connecting flights, before their delayed service even touches down in Frankfurt – and all of this, and more, is controlled from the Star Alliance Connection Centre at Frankfurt Airport, nestled within Lufthansa’s Integrated Operations Control Centre.
Australian Business Traveller stopped by the Connection Centre during a recent visit to Frankfurt, to see the Connection Service team in action on a busy weekday morning.
How the Star Alliance Connection Service works
While a key task of the Connection Centre is to monitor and assist connecting passengers arriving on delayed inbound flights, the team uses highly sophisticated computer software that watches over literally every Star Alliance flight arrival and departure at Frankfurt Airport.
Beyond mere delays – which naturally create alerts in the system – computers also monitor arrival and departure gate locations even for on-time flights, measuring the exact walking distance between them, estimated times for clearing security screening and passport control at that moment (as applicable to each journey), and when the boarding gate of the onward flight is set to close.
If the passenger’s connection could be at risk, Connection Service staff are alerted automatically, and can dispatch a buggy to a passenger’s arriving flight to drive them to their next: and if they have a checked bag, can arrange for baggage handlers to expedite its movement onto their onward flight.
Here's a tongue-in-cheek version of how it all comes together:
Managing at-risk flight connections
In an ideal world, every passenger would make every connection: but sometimes, it can be necessary to move passengers onto a new flight later in the day.
Making that call becomes a delicate balancing act between securing a new seat on a flight that might otherwise soon fill up – knowing that the passenger’s journey will be delayed, but with a firm seat to get them to their destination – or holding out where a passenger might just be able to make the connection, minimising the disruption.
It’s a tough decision to make, because passengers generally don’t want to be rebooked if there’s a chance they can dash and make their original flight, but at the same time, peak periods often mean very full flights, with limited ability to rebook the traveller on a later service.
These decisions are handled on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the airlines, as other factors are considered as well.
For example, a solo business traveller with Star Alliance Gold status flying on a German passport might, by nature, be more familiar with Frankfurt Airport and therefore more likely to make a tight connection, whereas larger groups, passengers from overseas or entry-level frequent flyers who don't travel as much may be less familiar with the airport or transit procedures, which could require a slightly longer transit time.
While the computers always highlight the problem, this is when it’s up to the humans to choose the right solution.
Proactively reducing transit time
Sometimes, a buggy between gates and an eagle-eyed baggage handler can be all you need to get your journey back on-track: but when there are more disruptive or unusual delays, the team at the Connection Centre can work their magic when both the airlines and the airport play ball.
For instance, where there are large groups of passengers connecting from one delayed flight onto another service, it’s sometimes possible to arrange parking the connecting aircraft at adjacent gates within the same terminal. This allows passengers to walk up one aerobridge and down the next, if no security re-screening is required.
Under the same scenario, baggage handlers can then move baggage straight from one aircraft onto another to help the onward flight depart on time and with everybody’s luggage on board.
In other circumstances, such as where very large groups of passengers are delayed and not everybody can be moved onto new flights which are already full, Connection Centre staff can also work with the airlines to request an aircraft change, to get everybody to their destination.
One example given by Connection Service staff is when around 50 passengers were delayed inbound to Frankfurt on TAP Air Portugal and missed their onward Lufthansa flight, and later flights that day were already full – but Lufthansa was able to upgrade one of its flights from the smaller Airbus A319 to the larger Airbus A321, which has about 70 extra seats, keeping everybody happy.
That’s just some of what takes place behind the scenes at Frankfurt’s Star Alliance Connection Centre, with similar setups at Chicago (ORD), Houston (IAH), Munich and now Toronto airports as well, with baggage-only expedition for Star Alliance passengers currently in place at London Heathrow, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington (IAD) and Denver too.
So the next time you’re delayed for a connecting flight and something ‘magic’ happens to get you to your destination on-time, chances are it wasn’t just a computer program making things happen: it was the team of people working hard behind the scenes to get you on your way – and if they’ve done their job well, chances are you won’t even realise what they’ve managed to do!
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Frankfurt as a guest of Star Alliance.