“Go to Gate” and “Boarding” – why you should not take them seriously and why the industry is to blame

airline_departureIf you’re at an airport waiting to take a flight or your checking in online for your flight, you’ll see on the boarding pass a “boarding time”. If you read somewhere on the same boarding pass, you’ll see the airline claim that they will close the gate 15-25 minutes before departure. None, I repeat none, of those statements are consistently followed by the airlines. And we all know it – Including the ground staff at the gate and at check-in.

I recently took a flight from Istanbul. It was an intra-European flight. The boarding pass said that boarding was 1 hour before departure! The incoming flight that would be taking me away from Istanbul hadn’t even arrived yet at Ataturk airport!

So why do airlines continue to pay homage to a “system” that they can’t or won’t enforce?

I believe this is caused by two factors – both intensely organizational and human.

First organisational: the decision on when to board a flight is a complex combination of factors – airport air traffic control; hub control (an airport function) and the airline itself. Often times the monitors at the airport are pre-set to announce “go to gate” or “boarding”. Only human intervention can change that and frankly most ground staff have no motivation to do so.

This brings me to the human side of things and something that is in my view fundamentally at the core of poor airline performance (especially as regards ground services). You, the passenger, only go to the airport when you have a plane to catch. The ground staff and gate agents work there. They have to be there for a certain number of hours each day – whether or not you are there or your flight is on time.

Why should they care if you wait around for 30 minutes at the gate waiting for the actual boarding time? In fact, it’s in their interests to get you all there well ahead of the boarding time so they can herd you on to a bus out to the apron where the plane is waiting or get you on to a jetway down to the plane.

Remember they work there – they have to wait around.

So here are some tips to avoid the wasted time at the gate so you can spend more time doing other things

  • Check the in-bound flight arrival – if your flight is being served by an inbound flight, go to the airport website to check its arrival time. If it’s late coming, it’ll be late going out again. Don’t believe the boarding time on your boarding pass
  • Equipped with that knowledge, if you check-in at the airport, ask the check-in agent if the inbound flight has arrived and if the flight will be on time. If they automatically say “yes” as they are wont to do, challenge them by telling them that you KNOW the flight is late coming in.
  • Once at the gate, ask if you will walk directly on to the plane or whether there is a bus. If there’s a bus, almost guaranteed, the gate agent will want to herd you on to the bus and have you waiting for the last passenger – about 20 minutes standing time.
  • If boarding has already started for a flight that you need to take a bus to board, ALWAYS, I repeat ALWAYS ask the gate agent how many more passengers are left to board the bus. They might try and be difficult and not tell you but insist that you wish to be the last passenger on the bus. Offer your boarding pass to them, have you boarded in the system and come back 10-15 mins later. On one occasion at Budapest airport (surprise, surprise) the gate agent pretended that by law they weren’t allowed to tell me that. I simply reminded her that the week before, her colleague standing next to her had volunteered that information. Put a uniform on some people and they behave like police!
  • “Go to gate” – when this appears on the monitor, it means that there are AT LEAST three more calls before the flight leaves. The only thing to bear in mind are the lines at security. But you have at least an extra 15-20 minutes.
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