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For intercontinental flights I am advised to be at the airport two hours before the gate closes. For intracontinental flights one hour is enough. Why is there a difference?

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This rule is rather hard to imagine. It's believable that whether your origin and destination are in the same country (or free travel area) or not makes a difference. But whether the origin and destination are in the same continent or not by itself shouldn't matter, as continents are a geographical thing, not a political or legal thing. Of course, different continents usually (but not always) implies different countries, but the reverse implication is certainly not true. –  Prateek May 19 at 12:37
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I assume OP is just confused and meant domestic vs international rather than intercontinental and intracontinental. Like, he booked a flight that was intercontinental (and thus international) and was told to arrive 2 hours in advance but had had previous experience with domestic flights and the 1 hour advance. Never having flown intracontinental but international (U.S. to Canada for example), he made the other connection. –  Doc May 19 at 14:26
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@Doc I don't thing the OP is “confused”, it's precisely the way European airlines typically phrase their recommendations. –  Relaxed May 19 at 15:21
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I think this depends a lot on the airport. Heathrow Terminal 5 has a cut-off of 35 minutes for all flights, no matter the destination - it's the same for domestic, European and long-haul –  Gagravarr May 20 at 12:52
    
just to be clear, you will not be "waiting" (as in your title) anything like the full amount of the time you must get to the airport before departure (not gate closing - the gate closes 10-20 min before departure.) For both domestic and international flights, it's all arranged to give you 20-30 minutes at the gate to deal with anything gate staff need to deal with, and then 20-30 minutes to actually board the plane and settle in. I think they also have to send a final passenger manifest after the door is closed and before it takes off. –  Kate Gregory May 20 at 18:12
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8 Answers 8

up vote 13 down vote accepted

The rule is actually 60 min for domestic, 120 min for international. Some companies, like Delta, even require 3 hours for international flights.

That could have a series of motivations, mainly due to convenience.

Bigger planes imply more luggage to load, more people to wait, more people to get on board. It seems reasonable that they don't want the plane to get delayed with people who came barely earlier than 30 min. And they obviously need to admin on board everyone who came before the stipulated time.

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Do big planes only fly internationally? –  Robert May 20 at 0:48
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@Robert Normally, the longer the flight, the larger the plane will be. Don't know precisely why, but that is what I have observed. –  AJMansfield May 20 at 2:00
    
@Robert, no you can see plenty of "wide" (two isle) aircraft flying domestic routes - similarly you'll see many single isle aircraft flying international routes. It all has to do with the passenger volume - in other words - its about economics. It is a lot cheaper to fly one large plane, than two small planes (flights) to transport the same amount of passengers + cargo. Simply put - to burn the same fuel but carry a larger cargo means more passengers per mile. That's why you see larger and larger planes; just like you see larger and larger cargo ships. –  Burhan Khalid May 20 at 4:20
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This seems to be a rather US-centric answer; it's not actually a “rule”, merely the way major US airlines deal with the issue. –  Relaxed May 20 at 10:36
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Needs of a domestic flight:

  • check in
  • check luggage
  • go through security
  • board plane

Additional needs of an international flight:

  • valid passport check at check-in
  • visa check at check-in to ensure you have the rights to enter the destination country
  • (not every country) exit passport control - outbound stamp, check
  • (not every country) departure forms need to be completed, checked
  • (cynically, you could argue extra time allows more spending at duty free)

While not always the case, international flights are more likely to have more people, more luggage to load, food to load, and additional paperwork, refueling and checks. Of course, most of that can be done while you're processing land-side.

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Also consider that the less open the border, the more often people will be delayed at immigration by the "formalities" (which could include random/routine questioning and checks) Burhan Khalid refers to, and that European flights between EU countries, Norway, Switzerland etc are closer to "domestic" than "international" in terms of this. –  user568458 May 19 at 14:18
    
@user568458 If short-haul flights in Europe and North Africa (in actual fact, it's not restricted to either the EU or Schengen) are more like “domestic” flights despite being fully international, maybe the distinction wasn't really between domestic and international flights to begin with. –  Relaxed May 21 at 7:44
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From personal experience - and anecdotal evidence chatting with airline desk staff - this has to do with immigration formalities that can cause delays.

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While some checks are usually performed at departure, most of the formalities are performed at arrival, though. –  nic May 21 at 6:10
    
Not necessarily; for example security checks of baggage, passing through metal detectors, immigration exit procedures are all done at departure time. On arrival, you have to do immigration procedures and then collect your bags. –  Burhan Khalid May 21 at 6:12
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Several things play a role. Others have mentioned passport control and immigration but this shouldn't be overstated. US-based passengers might mistakenly assume that the only thing that matters is whether the flight is domestic or international but it's just one factor among others. In Europe, it's not uncommon for non-EU non-Schengen flights to have short recommended check-in times even though passengers need to complete all the usual formalities and the distinction is really between intercontinental/long-haul flights on the one hand and shorter flights on the other hand. The layout of the airport, terminal used, size of the aircraft (and consequently the number of passengers and amount of luggage), etc. presumably all play a role.

Therefore, it's not uncommon to have different recommendations for each airport, specific requirements for sensitive flights or different recommendations for different airlines at the same airport (I have occasionally noticed shorter minimum check-in and boarding time for local airlines). From Europe, US-bound flights in particular seem to have a longer lead-in time than other comparable destinations (possibly because the airline needs to communicate the passenger manifest to the US authorities?).

Technically, you can also find flights that are intercontinental, yet domestic, e.g. flights between mainland France and Martinique, Polynesia or la Réunion. They typically use large jets like the Boeing 747 and follow the same check-in rules than transatlantic flights and other long-haul routes (incidentally, there is a passport check but on arrival).

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An intercontinental flight takes more people and has about the same amount of entrances as a continental flight. Naturally, you'll need more time to get everyone in the plane.

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The same size airplanes are used from New Zealand to Australia (international, need to be there earlier) as domestic Australia. –  Mark Mayo May 19 at 13:31
    
I've been on a 1-hour domestic flight that was a full-size double decker airplane with 10 seats per row (Jeju to Gimpo, Korea). –  gerrit May 19 at 16:05
    
@gerrit How long in advance were you supposed to show up at the airport? –  Relaxed May 19 at 16:22
    
@Annoyed I think it was an hour, but I'm not sure. I was there earlier because I travelled to the airport together with people who had an earlier flight. –  gerrit May 19 at 16:26
    
Well I guess it is more about the luggage. But I marked this as accepted answer because it's the only plausible thing I see (besides passports which are not necessarily unneeded in intra-continental flights). –  Thorsten Staerk May 19 at 18:47
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Many countries in Europe don't even have any domestic flights at all, and even in countries that do most people don't have a concept of "domestic" versus "international" flights like the US for example does. Nowadays with most countries in Schengen, the EU or both, flights within Europe however have the character of domestic flights like in the US.

So the main distinction, as it exists in Europe is "continental" versus "intercontinental". And since the major intercontinental destination is the US the rules for intercontinental flights are adapted to the requirements of the US.

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+1 but it's worth noting that airlines often offer the same short delays even for non-Schengen non-EU short-haul flights (say to Serbia) so EU immigration rules are not the whole story here. –  Relaxed May 20 at 10:46
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Unforseen delays can make anyone late. The difference is if you miss an intercontinental flight, you lose a lot of money.

This is just friendly advice, not airline policy. Actual check-in cutoff is much closer to departure. Eg, JetBlue is 30 minutes for domestic, 60 minutes for international. Delta's are similar, although it lists a few cities where it strongly suggests to arrive really, really early.

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The check-in time assumes that you will check luggage (and not fly with carry-on only). For long-haul super-jumbo aircraft (B747, A380, B773) more time is required to process luggage. For international flights, checked bags undergo more rigorous security screening, which takes more time.

Perhaps more importantly, on international flights, airlines are required to verify that each checked bag is matched to a passenger who is on board. If the airline finds that a passenger checked luggage but didn't board, the airline must retrieve that passenger's bags from the hold. That's why, on international flights, you may hear some passengers being repeatedly paged in the airport, at the gate, and on-board ("If passenger xxx is on board, please ring your flight attendant call button.")

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