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Airlines usually suggest to reach the airport very early in their instructions; of course it costs them nothing to write "you must arrive 3.5 hours early for this internal flight, even if you have already checked in online and have only cabin luggage".

Are these times binding in any sense, though? For instance, if there are unexpected delays at security that make me miss my flight, do I have any recourse if Cheapair says "tough luck, you arrived only 2 hours in advance; you should have followed our guideline, no refund". If not, are there official minimum/recommended times that are more realistic, possibly published by a body with a more passenger-friendly eye?

EDIT: as noted below, maybe "unexpected delay at security" is not the best example, since this is something outside of the airline's control. A better example: the baggage drop booth is understaffed because one of the employees got sick, so huge lines form and the airline cannot service me in time.

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    The last couple of months airports asked passengers not to arrive too early, no more than 4 hours before their flights, for quite a few European airports. Arriving later was a huge risk of missing ones flight
    – Willeke
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 13:15
  • In addition to the explanations in the answers, not meeting airlines recommended time may have consequences for the validity of some travel insurance claims.
    – xngtng
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 18:14
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  • @xngtng Yes, this is also part of what I am asking. Could you expand and make that an answer? Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 23:36
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    Ultimately it doesn't matter so much in practice. Depending on the specific circumstances, it can be hard to prove when you were at the airport and whether you presented yourself to security immediately and “Cheapair“ will routinely deny claims no matter what. For a counterexample, Schiphol airport (which has been particularly chaotic this summer) just announced a compensation scheme that does depend on you following the airline's guidelines but it remains to be seen how this works in practice.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 7:44

2 Answers 2

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You don't have any recourse if you miss your flight even if you arrive within their guidelines. Airports and airlines do their best to get people through quickly (I've seen staff in security lines calling for people on flight 123 at such o'clock and then pulling them up to the front) but their position is and always has been that it is on you to get to the gate by boarding time.

Plus, who is to call that delay at security unexpected? They take the time to tell you that times have changed and going through the airport takes longer, and you say that you know better and arrive with less buffer than recommended, and then it takes longer and you say "well, that was unexpected!". I don't think anyone is going to refund your flight when that happens.

Take the advice from the airline not as an adversarial "if you don't do this, we don't have to compensate you because it will be your fault" and more as a friendly "we want you to catch your flight. Here's how best to ensure it." Bring a book or some other way to pass the time. There are worse ways to spend 2 or 3 hours than sitting at a gate. Definitely one of them is sweating and stressing in a line trying to gain 15 seconds here and a minute there sure you're going to miss your flight. Expect some of those unexpected delays and any surprises your trip starts with will be good ones.

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    Of course, if you don’t care about losing your flight and can buy a next day ticket without blinking twice, feel free to arrive 1 hour before departure and try your luck :-)
    – JonathanReez
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 17:40
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    "There are worse ways to spend 2 or 3 hours than sitting at a gate". Not many though, if you're traveling with small children :-) Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 12:37
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    Even with small children, there are still worse ways. If you get to the gate literally hours in advance you can find some nearby location to pass the time. Spending time sweating and worrying and fretting and running with small children sounds a lot worse than hanging at the gate with their toys and stroller and not carrying everything all the time. Commented Aug 21, 2022 at 18:15
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    I can appreciate why people avoid spending too much time in an airport. A busy, noisy airport can be very stressful by itself for a lot of people, regardless if you're hurried for time or not. It's like a giant shopping mall you can't leave and with not a lot to do. With small, probably sleep deprived children it's probably even more stressful for some of them. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 14:08
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    I knew someone who used to say "if you don't miss at least one plane a year, you're spending too much time in airports." I think he was completely wrong. When you miss that plane, the hour or two leading up to the moment you realize you've missed it, and the hours after where you have to reschedule and rejuggle everything, are intensely uncomfortable. Avoiding that risk by allowing extra time, and as a result sometimes sitting at the gate with a book or your phone makes complete sense to me. Would I come 12 hours early? No. Do I follow what the airline suggests? Darn right I do. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 18:54
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The only binding requirements are that you:

  • check-in before the check-in deadline (which depends on how you check-in, the airport, the airline, sometimes the class or other parameters)
  • drop your bags before the baggage drop deadline (ditto)
  • be present at the gate before the boarding deadline

It's up to you to make sure you meet those deadlines. If you're not at the gate in time because it took hours to go through security, they have no obligation to accommodate you, whether you arrived 5 minutes or 5 hours early at the airport. Note that they would generally have no way at all of knowing when you arrived at the airport anyway.

Many (most?) airlines will actually have gestures of goodwill if the situation is unusual and there were longer delays than one may reasonably expect, or other similar reasons (e.g. if there was an abandoned bag which caused a significant part of the airport to be closed, etc.), but they're generally in no obligation to do so.

In the US, some airlines have an official or unofficial "flat tyre" rule which gives you some leeway if you get to the gate a bit too late but not too much, but that's more the exception that the rule IMHO.

How long in advance you should be at the airport varies a lot based on a number of parameters:

  • Whether you have checked luggage or not
  • Whether you have already fully and successfully completed check-in online or not (i.e. you have a valid boarding pass)
  • Whether you need to take any other additional steps at the airport (e.g. non EU/EEA passengers on Ryanair flights who need to undergo "document check"), or of course duty-free form stamping, or if you have checked luggage, any overweight/extra luggage charges to pay
  • The airport
  • The gate your flight departs from. There are gates in some airports which take less than 5 minutes to get to. There are other gates which take well more than a half-hour to get there (in larger airports with multiple concourses, where you have to take a train or bus, etc.)
  • The day you're travelling on. Don't expect to breeze through security on a busy day like the first day of school holidays or before important holidays (Christmas in Europe, Thanksgiving in the US, etc.), or even on long week-ends.
  • The class of travel and if that gives you access to fast track or not.
  • The current situation. Follow the news and check the airport's and airline's websites for up-to-date info about any disruptions.
  • Your mode of transport to the airport and any delays you may incur/backup plans.
  • Whether you need to go through exit passport control (usually a lot faster than on entry, but there can still be nice queues).
  • How well you know the airport
  • How "well travelled" you are. Some people travel so much that you can drop them in any airport and they'll find their way in a second. Others, well, let's say it can take them a while.
  • How fast you walk/whether you have lots of "encumbrances" (aka kids, strollers, etc.).

These days many airports have significant disruption as soon as traffic picks up a little. Common advice from many such airports is to arrive 3 hours before your flight.

For a passenger used to travelling, in a small, well organised airport, with no check-in luggage, check-in done online, not on a busy day and with fast track, arriving one hour before departure is usually more than enough (I have arrived much later than that on many occasions).

If you don't have fast track then it becomes very dependent on how busy security is, and that can range from minutes to hours.

If the airport is large and/or with multiple concourses, that can add a significant amount of time to get to the gate.

On any busy day, arriving 3 hours early is probably a good idea.

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    I've experienced in the US that the deadline for checking in baggage can be well before the deadline for checking in a person. EG I was once 10 minutes past the baggage check-in time at RIC and they wouldn't accept my checked luggage, but they would check me in if I carried it through security as hand luggage (yeah, right)
    – Peter M
    Commented Aug 20, 2022 at 16:22
  • If there is a fire alarm or a security incident at the airport, flights are usually held at the gate, as realistically it's going to mean a huge number of passengers aren't going to make the flight otherwise and there won't be enough seats for them on later flights. It would mean a lot more work for the airline, and a lot of angry passengers dragging their reputation down and flooding their social media and customer service line with complaints. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 12:08
  • @Crazymoomin The issue is that if they wait, they will delay all flights for that aircraft for the rest of the day. Beyond a certain time this will cost them so much in compensation (for which they can't claim extraordinary circumstances) that they can be better off leaving without the missing passengers. It's a difficult balance...
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 15:10
  • @jcaron They can claim the initial flight was out out of their control if there was an incident at the airport. Besides, a fire alarm or security incident is unlikely to delay passengers for more than an hour or two, so they'll probably be below the threshold. It's that or find another aircraft and crew for the half of the plane who didn't make it, which will be very expensive for the airline, probably more than any compensation due. Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 15:45
  • @Crazymoomin If the passengers are not at the gate on time they can safely say "not our problem"... They will probably issue vouchers or maybe even refunds and be done with it. That's what they did many many time recently with the chaos UK airports and at Schipol.
    – jcaron
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 16:12

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