For air travelers, one of the most inconvenient experiences possible is to miss a connecting flight. Not only will you not get to your destination on time, but you could be stranded in an unfamiliar city for an indefinite period of time.

Airline giant United Continental (UAL -2.02%) wants to help its customers avoid the hassle of missed connections. Earlier this week, United announced it is deploying a new technology tool that it calls "ConnectionSaver," which will help reduce the number of missed connections by automatically holding certain flights until connecting passengers arrive.

The big trade-off

Obviously, the best way for airlines to avoid having customers miss their connections is to keep their flights running on time in the first place. However, that's easier said than done. Factors outside of airlines' control like weather and airport congestion can cause significant delays.

In recent years, about 80% of U.S. commercial flights have arrived no more than 14 minutes later than scheduled. (Those flights are considered "on time" for the purpose of official government statistics.) United's on-time performance for mainline flights has been right around the average, which isn't bad considering that the airline has lots of flights at congested airports. A 90% on-time arrival rate is virtually unheard of among U.S. airlines. Thus, delays are an inevitable part of the business.

A United Airlines plane on a runway

United Airlines' on-time performance tends to be roughly average. Image source: United Airlines.

Given that some flights are bound to arrive late, airlines have a few options for dealing with the possibility of missed connections. First, airlines could extend their minimum connection times, creating a buffer in case the first flight arrives late. But that would increase travelers' journey times to avoid a relatively infrequent issue (i.e., missed connections), potentially leading to market share losses.

Second, airlines can hold planes at their hubs to wait for connecting passengers. However, that risks inconveniencing lots of customers for the benefit of a few. It can also cause cascading delays, as one late-arriving aircraft causes several others to be delayed.

The third option is to stick to the schedule as much as possible, recognizing that some customers will miss their connecting flights as a result. That can lead to customer complaints, though, particularly from those who miss their connecting flights by just minutes.

ConnectionSaver to the rescue

In other words, airlines are stuck with a delicate balancing act when deciding whether to hold a flight for late-arriving connecting passengers. United Airlines' new ConnectionSaver tool will automate the decision in order to reduce the number of missed connections while ensuring that other customers are not inconvenienced.

A United Express regional jet parked on the tarmac

Image source: United Airlines.

The ConnectionSaver tool analyzes flight manifests to determine if any customers are making tight connections for a given outbound flight. If so, the tool estimates when those customers are likely to get to the gate, based on a variety of factors. It then determines whether the departure can be delayed long enough for connecting passengers to board without causing the flight to arrive late. (Most flights do have some "cushion" built into their schedules.)

ConnectionSaver also automatically texts a variety of information to customers with tight connections. This includes where their incoming flight is arriving, which gate their next flight will depart from, directions between the two gates, and the expected travel time to reach the next gate.

United Airlines began testing ConnectionSaver at its Denver hub in February, and more recently introduced the tool in Chicago. The company claims that the tool has already enabled more than 14,400 customers to make connections they otherwise would have missed, while delaying their flights' departures by an average of just six minutes. Based on the program's success thus far, it will be expanded to all of United's hubs by the fall.

Can United Airlines shed its lousy reputation?

In the two-plus years since United Continental's infamous "passenger-dragging" incident, the carrier has made a concerted effort to improve its customer service. Unfortunately, air travelers don't seem to have noticed much of a change. Just a few weeks ago, the J.D. Power 2019 North America Airline Satisfaction Study found that United got the worst ratings among the five full-service carriers included in the report.

There's not much United Airlines can do to fix its reputation other than try to steadily improve the quality and consistency of its customer service. The good news is that United really does seem serious about doing a better job. The new ConnectionSaver tool is just one of the ways that the airline hopes to improve customers' experience.

In the long run, United's increased focus on treating its customers well is likely to pay off in the form of higher customer satisfaction scores and a better reputation.