How does this work?

I have no player connections, yet I still get aircraft with player names?? Is this to make you have a connection or what?

No, if another player whom you don’t know sends a plane to the airport you are playing in, there is a possibility that you might get a chance to handle the plane.

That does make sense as I occasionally get notifications saying “this player handled your b757” or “your a380 failed to be handled, and is returning to your airport”

The your connection player fails to handle the plane, then the plane landing request goes to another online player and he/she might handle the plane.

Yes

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I presumed that is what happened

yes exactly.

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I sent several planes to one player and havent received any of these messages. Also, I did get any connection rewards for sending planes.

Although you send planes to your connection partner, your partner must handle them on time before you receive ‘connection points’. This is why those that have very reliable connection partners can rack up over 1000 ‘points’.