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We recently travelled to Salt Lake City from Manchester in the U.K. via Atlanta. We are UK citizens and were travelling under the Visa Waiver Scheme + ESTA for the first time.

We had a two-hour connection in Atlanta. However, we queued in immigration for over an hour and a half, meaning we missed our connecting flight. We are now in dispute with our airline (Virgin Atlantic) about whether we are due compensation, as we don't think a two-hour connection was enough time to be sure of catching our flight.

My question is 'how typical was our experience with Immigration in Atlanta?'. I believe waiting times are much less for US citizens and for those visiting the US for the second time under ESTA. However, is 90 minutes fairly typical for someone travelling under ESTA for the first time?

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    I don't know what a normal Customs experience for a UK citizen would be in the US (I'm Canadian and we get slightly special treatment), but as long as your connection exceeded the minimum connection time required at that airport, the airline probably doesn't owe you any compensation because the delay was caused by Customs, not by them. They would owe you transport to SLC on a later flight, of course. In normal circumstances, two hours should be plenty; those delays sound unusual to me. Perhaps another overseas passenger with ATL experience can comment. – Jim MacKenzie Oct 11 '17 at 22:58
  • I just came through Immigration in Atlanta a week ago: US citizens, Green Card holders, and VWP/ESTA holders shared the same line. From wheels down, it took 85 minutes, with 40 of those going through the line. However, I've found that this varies according to the time of day of arrival. – Giorgio Oct 12 '17 at 2:33
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    I am a UK citizen who has travelled to Atlanta many times. Sometimes, the imigration queue is very long. I don't note the exact time in the queue but I recall that from wheels down to sitting in my rental car is often 2 hours. I would be very uncomfortable with a two hour connection. – badjohn Oct 12 '17 at 8:35
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    2 hours in Atlanta is pretty typical, even for US Citizens (unless using the Mobile Passport phone app, which drastically speeds up the process, but is not available to non-US Citizens). – abelenky Oct 12 '17 at 17:20
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates an Airport Wait Times website where you can retrieve reports about average waits at different times of the day at different airports. (Note that this is for CBP processing, not TSA security screening, which has a different website).

At Terminal F at ATL for this past Monday, for example, the worst non-citizen maximum wait times were reportedly from 0500-0600, at 75 minutes, with 3 passengers (both US and non-US citizens) having to wait more than an hour. For what it's worth, that's better than 1500-1600 in Terminal E, when the max wait was 79 minutes with 88 people queued up for over an hour.


Based on your routing, I would guess you were connecting onto a Delta flight. Both ATL and SLC are Delta hubs, with flights between them departing every hour or two throughout the entire day, so I hope you were reaccommodated without too much hassle. The fact of this schedule may even have influenced the time Virgin Atlantic thought would be sufficient, especially if only a few people on the intended SLC flight are non-US nationals making international connections.

For comparison, the minimum connection time for a Delta-to-Delta international-to-domestic flight is reported by FlyerTalk as only 85 minutes which, in my experience with Atlanta, sounds optimistic to say the least.

Airlines have little interest in having their passengers miss flights, and minimum connection times are (probably) not fabricated from whole cloth. But as the saying goes, past performance is no guarantee of future results. There can be flight delays, or computer or staffing problems, or a couple of 747s may enjoy light headwinds and land just ahead of you. If arriving late will have a cascading effect on further travel, adding a little padding doesn't hurt; it's often advised that people flying in for departing cruises should plan to arrive the previous day.

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I think two hours in this case are enough, most of the time. So usually it will be fine, but occasionally someone will suffer larger than average delays, and will miss a flight. Unfortunately, this happened to be you.

I missed a flight once exactly this way, and the airline (US Airways) just put me on the next flight (which was the next hour). They didn't try to argue that it's my fault.

I'm not sure what compensation you expect. If you mean that you shouldn't pay extra for the change of flight, I think you're right. If you want compensation for the delay, I don't know.

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  • After we missed our connecting flight, we were put on standby by Delta. We failed to get on the remaining 3 flights that evening. We did eventually board a flight the following morning, but only after much complaining. We arrived in Salt Lake City 15 hours late, missed a day of our holiday and then found the car hire company didn't have the car we'd booked, even though we had paid in advance and informed them that we would be late arriving. That is why we feel we are due compensation. – Nigel Sangster Oct 12 '17 at 21:57
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    You may want to edit the question to clarify what you got and what compensation you want. I'm afraid USA law is not on your side, but don't know for sure. – ugoren Oct 13 '17 at 10:21
  • @NigelSangster I feel your pain but I have yet to experience a car rental place in SLC that has had the car I booked when I arrived. The "Best" case was was booking a small SUV (for just me) and being given the keys to a ginormous monster sized SUV after being assured (with straight face from the employee) that the keys belonged to the class of car I booked. – Peter M Oct 13 '17 at 15:01
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    The airline certainly won't take responsibility for the car rental problem. If you prepaid, the rental company is the one that breached its promise to you. The airline has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately I suspect the airline will consider the customs delay to be beyond their control as well, and won't be required to give you any help. I suggest booking longer connections in future to minimize the odds of such events happening. – Jim MacKenzie Oct 13 '17 at 17:35

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