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How Early to Arrive at the Airport and Why

Frequent travellers know to go to the airport early. Let’s say you arrive to the airport thirty minutes early, only to find out that the check-in counter is closed. Despite your begging, you miss your flight and are have no other choice than to purchase another expensive ticket for a later flight.

Why do these rules exist and how early should you arrive to the airport to make your flight in time? At Skyscanner Australia, we’ll share when to arrive at the airport and the reasons behind these set check in times.

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How early should you arrive at the airport? 

Airports and airlines tend to have their own recommended arrival times. You should be at the airport at least two to three hours early if you have a long-haul flight, international flight, or if you are travelling during high season. This is to ensure that you clear customs, security, and arrive at the proper gate in time for boarding. Even those who have checked in online will typically need a minimum of two hours. 

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For domestic flights, plan to arrive at least thirty minutes to two hours before departure. You will still need to pass through security and find your gate in time for boarding. You will need a minimum of 30 minutes, even if you’ve checked in online. 

How early should you arrive at the airport if you’ve checked-in online? Expect that this will save about thirty minutes of your check in time — especially if you are not planning to check luggage. 

Boarding gates open 20 to 40 minutes before plane departure. If it is a large aircraft, the boarding gate will open up to one hour in advance. However, the airline can change the boarding gate at any time, so it’s essential to listen and check departure boards for any updates. 

What’s the difference between boarding time and departure time? 

It’s a common misconception to think that departure time and boarding time are the same thing. Departure time is the time when aircraft crew must complete all of their preliminary flight and safety checks. Boarding allows all passengers to get on board before the flight attendants complete these checks before take-off.

Why do you need to arrive so early?

Arriving early at the airport is essential because airline crew must complete the following before departure:

  1. Luggage planning: Check-in staff and the luggage loader tally the number of passengers, the number of checked luggage, and the aircraft load. They then calculate the balance of the load in relation to the plane’s center of gravity. 
  2. Passenger check-in: Once passengers have checked-in any luggage, staff at the counter verifies their identification, assigns a boarding pass, and determines whether or not the passenger is carrying any dangerous items. 
  3.  Luggage check-in: After baggage is checked in, it is sent through security and then enters through the baggage sorting system. The baggage is then placed onto transport carts and loaded onto the aircraft. 
  4. Passengers clear security: After check-in, passengers must go through a security check. This is one of the most time-consuming activities as passengers must remove laptops, liquids, and shoes. Items are scanned through an X-ray machine and people walk through a metal detector or body scanner. 
  5. Passengers go to the gate: Passengers then must go to their designated boarding gate, which is often in another terminal. 
  6. Passengers board the aircraft: Passengers are typically loaded from back to front into the aircraft. Aircraft crew checks the boarding pass and may check identification as well. They tally up the number of passengers present and the passengers checked in to see if any are missing. 
  7. Aircraft crew preliminary checks: Flight attendants give passengers a safety briefing, explain how to use aircraft equipment like the air conditioning, seatbelts, tray tables, and other features. They also check that carry-on luggage is correctly stowed, seatbelts are on, tray tables are up, and window shades are up.
  8. Pilot preliminary checks: Once these checks are complete, the aircraft crew closes the aircraft hatch. The pilot then applies for take-off permission from ground control. Then, he completes an engine check. The pilot then releases the brakes, contacts ground control, and the plane is moved into a designated position. The pilot turns on the engine, completes a secondary checklist, and gets permission to turn on the taxi light to taxi to the runway for takeoff. 

Can the aircraft hatch re-open if the plane is still at the gate?

No — at least not easily. Since the pilot can only signal their departure time from the time that the aircraft hatch is closed, re-opening it requires a new departure time to be in effect. At airports with high turnovers, re-applying for a departure time can cause over an hour delay. 

Opening the hatch again also poses a safety risk. Passengers may leave the aircraft and will not be accounted for. Or, the passenger may have left the aircraft after placing a dangerous item onboard. This requires the flight attendants to re-do their pre-takeoff checks. 

While it may seem like arriving early is unnecessary or excessive, airline crew have quite a few things to do between the time travellers check in and the time they take off. Think about all these steps the next time you’re stuck at the airport, cursing its lack of lounge chairs or charging outlets. 

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