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How early to arrive at the airport and why

Times are tough for travellers. But with the world preparing to reopen in 2021, we're here to keep you dreaming and planning for your next adventure - whether that's a staycation or flying off to parts unknown. Until then, we've got the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates to keep you up to date and ready to go.

In this new world of travel, it’s more important than ever to arrive to the airport with plenty of time to spare. But just how early should you arrive at the airport? In this guide, we’ll cover the most common airport arrival questions, walk you through the check-in process, and share how early to arrive for domestic and international flights. This way, you won’t ever have to experience that sinking stomach feeling of purchasing another plane ticket after your initial flight took off without you.

Please note: Travel restrictions and border closures take place at any time. Before your trip, be sure to check the latest official government advice on Smartraveller.gov.au. Because of the Coronavirus pandemic, many airports require travellers to arrive earlier than during non-pandemic times.

How early should I arrive at the airport? 

Airports and airlines tend to have their own recommended arrival times, so it’s best to consult the airport or airline website directly before you depart. But if you cannot find official airport or airline advice, these are the general rules of how early you should arrive at the airport:

  • If you are travelling on a long-haul flight, an international flight, or are travelling during high season, arrive at the airport at least two to three hours early. This will give you enough time to clear customs, security, and arrive at the right gate in time for boarding. Even if you checked in early online, you will typically need a minimum of two hours. Check in counters often close 90 minutes before a flight’s scheduled departure.
  • If you are travelling on a domestic flight, plan to arrive at least one to two hours before departure. You will still need to pass through security and find your gate in time for boarding. If you already checked in online, you will still need a minimum of 30 minutes. Check in counters for domestic flights usually close 30 minutes prior to a flight’s scheduled departure.

Boarding gates usually open 20 to 40 minutes before the plane departs. If it is a large aircraft, the boarding gate will open up to one hour in advance.

How early should you arrive at the airport if you’ve checked-in online? Checking in online can save around thirty minutes of total check in time if there’s a bag drop area or if you don’t need to check luggage. Premium, business class, and first class passengers often have a dedicated check in area, shortening total check in time.

Some domestic flights depart from an international terminal. If this is the case for your journey, you’ll want to follow international airport arrival recommendations.

If you’re travelling with oversized or excess baggage or with children in tow, you’ll want to err on the more generous side of our airport arrival recommendations.

Two children sitting on a cart of luggage

How early should I arrive at the airport during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Because of increased safety protocols and social distancing measures, you’ll want to arrive about 30 minutes earlier than non-COVID times. This is because many airports have enacted measures that cause the check in process to take longer than normal, like decreasing self check-in kiosks or counters for social distancing, temperature screenings, increased document checks, and new baggage handling procedures.

Woman wearing a mask sitting inside of an airport

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

It’s a common travel misconception to think that departure time and boarding time are the same thing. The boarding time is when all passengers can board the aircraft. Departure time is the time when aircraft crew must complete all of their preliminary flight and safety checks, and when the plane is scheduled to depart the airport.

Why do I need to arrive so early to the airport?

Arriving early at the airport is essential because airport and airline crew must complete multiple tasks 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 luggage, staff at the counter verify 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 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, excess clothing and sometimes 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 go to their designated boarding gate, which is sometimes in another terminal. 
  6. Passengers board the aircraft: Passengers are typically loaded in order of their seat assignments from back to front into the aircraft. Aircraft crew check boarding passes and may check identification. Crew members tally the number of passengers present and the passengers checked in to see if any passengers 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 the pilots complete their checks, 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. 

While it may seem like arriving early to the airport is a bit excessive, there are quite a few things to do between the time travellers check in and the time the plane takes off.  

Will a flight leave without me if I arrive late?

If you’re running late to the airport and miss your opportunity to check in before the counter closes, your flight will probably leave without you. Airlines run their routes on tight schedules, and waiting for a late passenger can have a chain reaction. Air traffic, passengers who have stopovers, and flight crew schedules are just a few things that can be e massively impacted by a late flight.

Man holding a phone and watching plane take off

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

A plane cannot reopen their hatch once they’ve closed it, at least not easily. Since the pilot can only signal their departure time from the time that the aircraft hatch is closed, reopening the hatch requires a new departure time. At airports with high turnovers, reapplying 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 redo their pre-takeoff checks. 

What happens if I arrive at the airport too early?

Arriving at the airport earlier than you’d like to can easily happen if your journey has a stopover. If you arrive too early, your check in counter or the airport itself may be closed. Usually, check in counters for international flights open three hours before a flight’s departure. Domestic check in counters usually open two hours before departure.

If the airport is closed, you may have to wait outside until it opens. Many large international airports have a dedicated area, often with a food court or seats, for travellers to wait in before check in opens.

Now that you know when to go to the airport, Skyscanner Australia can help you find cheap flights, hotel rooms, and car hire options during your next trip. 

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