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After checking in online with Singapore airlines I received a boarding pass. This shows a departure time of 4:15pm but a boarding time of 3:15pm.

Surely they are not going to board the flight an hour before departure. So what's going on?

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One explanation is simply that “boarding time” is typically the time the gate opens/the airline wishes you to show up at the gate. It's not the time you will set foot on the aircraft. If you factor in security inspection at the gate, the time to process everybody, a little buffer because some people will inevitably get lost or be late, it's not absurd to ask people to come 1 hour earlier. –  Relaxed Mar 23 at 11:49
    
This is for a flight departing Sydney, which I didn't make clear above –  WW. Mar 23 at 12:25
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Fun fact: With low-cost airlines in Europe, it's not uncommon to see “gate closing” on video screens shortly after the official “boarding time” even though the aircraft is not yet docked to the terminal and passengers from the previous flights are yet to disembark. They want everybody processed and standing in line in advance to be able to turn around as quickly as possible. –  Relaxed Mar 23 at 14:01
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@Annoyed they did that to me today in Sydney. Qantas flashed up 'FINAL CALL', there's a panicked run to the gate, and they hadn't even started boarding. –  Mark Mayo Mar 23 at 14:12

6 Answers 6

There are a number of times and cutoffs and activities that happen before a plane leaves. How long these activities take depends on how many people are involved, in other words on the size of the plane. These include:

  • paging passengers who have yet to demonstrate they'll be admitted to the target country, and looking at their passports. The more people check in online (and don't provide their passport info, typically optional) the more of this there will be. The majority of the paging I see at the gate these days is about this
  • adjusting seating - putting families together, giving people window or aisle seats, and so on
  • working out whether everybody has checked in or not, and looking into whether connecting flights are bringing checked in passengers who are not here yet
  • after the flight has "closed" (no more checkins will be accepted), handing out upgrades and further seat reassignments
  • getting the people onto the plane - this may involve a short walk down a jetbridge, or a longer walk outside, possibly with staff helping those in wheelchairs or the elderly, or even a bus to where the plane is waiting on the far side of the airport
  • after the doors are closed and no more people will be allowed to board, possibly pulling the luggage of anyone who checked in but did not board

How long to allow for all these will depend on how many people are on the flight, how many seat change requests you're likely to get, how much online checkin there is, whether it's an international flight, even how orderly people are when lining up and how smoothly they manage to get on the plane and get their stuff put away. Also, if the airport is extremely busy, the airline cannot risk losing their "slot" by loitering around at the gate, so they will plan things with a bit of buffer - closing the doors 10, 15, even 20 minutes before departure, and closing the flight 45 minutes or more before departure. It is not possible for you to argue with this buffer or board at your own schedule in this case.

Many international flights ask you to be at the gate an hour in advance, and label it boarding time, so they can have 30 minutes of everyone-at-the-gate-but-not-boarding to do their other tasks. Small domestic flights at little airports where nobody is coming in on a connection might ask for as little as 30 or even 20 minutes.

Now what does this mean for you? If you haven't requested an upgrade, don't need a seat change, provided your passport info at checkin, and have priority boarding, you can get to the gate just before the flight closes (no more checkins allowed) since boarding will usually have started by then for a large flight or is about to start for small ones. (I generally only feel comfortable doing this when I've taken that flight from that airport on that airline before, and know what the variable are.) If you are going to need to interact with the gate staff before you get on the plane, don't try to plan for it during the time that 300 people are lining up and shuffling on to the plane. Not only will it be unhappy for you and for them, you probably won't get the seat you want.

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I just checked my previous tickets from Singapore Airlines and it seems to be normal that the boarding time starts 1 hour before the flight for flights departing from Changi Airport.

One reason for that is probably that the baggage checks at that airport are at the gate only and thus they might want to allow for enough time in case somebody's baggage needs to be checked. Even if you do arrive 1 hour early, you'll probably not be allowed to board so early, but will have to wait for at least another half an hour.

However it also states on my ticket that the gates close 10 minutes prior to departure, so if you don't mind not boarding later than other people, you should be safe arriving later than 1 hour before departure.

On a side note, I've had one or two flights from Singapore where the pilot would announce that everybody has boarded on time and that will thus be able to departure a couple minutes earlier.

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Airlines ask people to come earlier on some flights for several reasons, for example:

  • The long-distance last flights of the day sometimes try to leave as early as possible. If people arrive earlier, this helps a lot. I made this experience frequently, along with the appropriate announcements.
  • Some airlines try to get people to the gate much earlier because they make the assumptions that people are going to be late otherwise. Happened to me in New Zealand. I showed up in time for boarding, and they told me that I would have to wait for another 30 minutes, and that they did this only because people would be late otherwise...
  • Another factor would be the situation for waiting at security checks. If an airport is aware that security checks take long, they will try to make you check in sooner through a earlier boarding time assignment so that you make sure to arrive early enough at the airport.

So I am sure there are other reasons like that, some which make sense and others which make less. Whatever was the specific reason for your flight, might be hard to say. I never had to board in SG 1 hour before.

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If ALL passengers have arrived, do airlines usually depart earlier in time? –  Ayesh K Mar 23 at 12:52
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@AyeshK Yes! It's just a couple of minutes, but they often get out early on those flights. –  uncovery Mar 23 at 13:59
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Sometimes it's illegal to fly from certain airports at certain times. Some airlines take slots that are as close as possible to the legal curfew because these slots are cheap for them, and then if the flights are late even a little, passengers have to wait until first thing the following morning. I had this with Ryanair once - the flight was only slightly delayed, but this left all us passengers stuck at the airport all night on camp beds... –  user568458 Mar 24 at 15:20
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@RichardGreen, because it's a cheap airline? I've never quite understood the criticisms against Ryanair. I'd rather have the option to take a low quality but cheap airline, than having to pay for Lufthansa or Air France on every flight. –  this.lau_ Mar 24 at 18:25
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@this.lau_ Part of it is the multiple deceptive tricks in their advertisement. Personally, what I like is the option to take a cheap but still decent airline like easyjet (and have them put pressure on legacy airlines' fares) but I could do without Ryanair. Less space, no free food or a basic service for a lower price is a good trade-off. A flight cancelled because the airline takes a risk you have no way to know about or evaluate yourself feels different. –  Relaxed Mar 25 at 8:36

Singapore Airlines actually close boarding just ten minutes before departure, so there is indeed absolutely no need to get to the gate an hour before departure. Back in the days when I flew out of Changi pretty much weekly, it was standard procedure for me to arrive at the airport 30 min before departure. (Already checked in, access to citizen/PR lanes in Immigration, and I knew the airport like the back of my hand. Don't try this at home!)

As for why, they're just trying to get people to the gate early, and Changi's been ratcheting up the propaganda for a while now. (Pet peeve: announcing "Final Call" something like 40 minutes before departure, and switching to "Gate Closing" when it's actually getting close about 20 minutes before.)

That said, unlike most airports Changi T1 and T2 only do the security inspection at the gate itself, so it does make sense to show up a wee bit earlier than usual. And since SQ is a big operator of the A380 superjumbos, it does take some time to get everybody on board, and if inexperienced first-time travelers fall for it and queue up nice and early, it's a smoother ride for everybody else.

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While sometimes the airlines are simply trying to get you to board early to speed up there turnround time, and don't close boarding until much later, there are some important occasions when this early boarding time is significant and important.

The most usual reason is when the flight will be boarding by stairs in the field and not by a normal gate. In this case the flight will take significantly longer to board than normal, because passengers need to be bussed to the plane. Be warned that boarding will close significantly earlier than normal in this circumstances.

I've had this happen to me several times, usually at Heathrow. Occasionally I've been caught out and had to scramble to get to the gate on time. You should be able to check if this applies to you if you look for your gate number on an airport map. Your ticket may also state the time at which boarding closes. Make sure you arrive well before that, even if it seems unreasonably early.

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I have had this at Heathrow as well. Even at a regular gate. The board said Please Wait for quite a while, with no gate number, then a gate number appeared along with "Flight Closing." I had to hustle 10-15 minutes down to the gate. Of course nobody was actually boarding yet, but they were in the process of finalizing upgrades and doing the random hand baggage inspections. LHR really likes everyone to congregate in the shopping and dining areas until closer to flight boarding time. –  Michael Mathews Apr 1 at 1:24

The airlines track the number of on time departures (and arrivals). It is a key metric both within management and to some of the public picking an airline.

One way to increase the chances of an on time departure is to get everyone to the gate earlier than really needed.

Arriving on time is closely related to departing on time because at busy airports once a plane misses its departure slot it may have to wait an hour or more for the next free slot.

A related trend is that the arrival times are padded so that if the flight gets a good tailwind it arrives early. This seems to make passengers happy even though the published arrival time is not the true estimated arrival time.

It is all a bit of a game to make flight appear to be on time more often...

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If getting people to the gate early prevents late departure, it is clearly not "earlier than really needed." It is early enough to prevent a late departure. If getting people to the gate early didn't help them leave on time, then it would be earlier than needed. Right? –  Kate Gregory Mar 26 at 16:13
    
There is a balance between how early the airline requests and how much time passengers spend waiting at the gate. As there is not much cost to the airline for passengers waiting an extra 30 minutes at the gate they tend to make the boarding time earlier. The argument that is not earlier than needed would still apply if the boarding time was 1 1/2 hours before the flight time or 2 hours... because the flight would still leave on time... –  Michael Smith Mar 26 at 21:09
    
Ah, I think a little edit would clear that up. If you get people there earlier than usually needed, and something unusual happens, you don't end up delayed thanks to the buffer. And if nothing unusual happens, then as far as the airline's concerned, there's no harm done, so they are motivated to get you there earlier than they usually need you, just in case? (Taken to extremes there is harm done, with people from different flights milling around together confusing gate staff, but I see your overall point.) –  Kate Gregory Mar 26 at 21:34
    
I understand people not wanting to waste too much time at the gate area, but I am not one of those who cuts it down to the last minute. I'd rather have time to stroll the airport and have a drink than be racing to get through security so I do not miss the final call. –  Michael Mathews Apr 1 at 1:25

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