Every time I come to the airport and arrive to the boarding gate, the same scenario occurs. All passengers are sitting in the area, until boarding is announced. Then, mostly everyone queue up.

I prefer remaining seated until the queue is depleted since it is not a pleasant thing, especially when it was already done at check-in and security.

Also, once in the jet bridge, queuing continues, especially when the staff requires passengers to gate check carry-ons. Then, inside the plane, traffic jams continue as people try to cram their luggage into the overhead bins, aisle-seated passengers get up to give way to others, last-minute re-seating arrangements happen...

A few years ago, when boarding a Virgin America flight at SFO, I had a much more pleasant experience. The gate access was already open long before departure time, and passengers leisurely showed up at the counter, had their boarding passes scanned and headed to the jet bridge. No line or big group of people; it happened like if it was train waiting to depart at a terminus station. In fact, after we boarded, other passengers continued to show up on board, in small groups or by themselves, during the next 20 minutes that led to the actual departure.

Why does not this process get applied to other airlines as well? There is no waiting at all and the experience is much better, in comparison to the traditional "wait until the last minute and call everyone at the gate" method.

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    Simple: the plane is more important than you. – Kate Gregory Oct 3 '14 at 19:15
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    Your timing for the Virgin example seems to indicate you arrived after the initial rush, as you mention that boarding continued for 20 minutes after you boarded. Most wide bodies (747, 777, 330, 380, etc) start boarding about 45 minutes before departure, so the rush would have taken place 20 minutes before you arrived at the gate. Even narrow bodies start boarding more than 20 minutes ahead of departure. – user13044 Oct 4 '14 at 3:40
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    My guess is that the Virgin Atlantic flight is somewhat unusual. Virgin only flies from SFO to London - about a 14 hour flight. That means, a single plane can't make the round trip in a day - it also means that the plane will spend about 10 hours per day on the ground either in LHR or SFO. A five-hour ground time on each end gives you much more time to board than the usual one to two hour turnaround. Most other transatlantic carriers don't turn around, but continue the flight on one end (for instance, LHR-JFK, and then the plane continues to LAX), so they wouldn't have the same ground time. – Kevin Keane Jun 6 '15 at 21:55
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    @KevinKeane SFO LON is not fourteen hours! Maybe eleven on a bad day. Moreover, the plane is not going to sit for ten hours at London, which is VS's home base: it can be used to operate another route as soon as it has turned around (about three hours for a wide body). Commercial reasons sometimes dictate sitting idle at an outstation for that kind of time but I think at SFO an immediate turn around is practical. – Calchas Jun 7 '15 at 11:21
  • @Calchas - Thanks for the correction, my memory was off. I used to fly the similar LAX-FRA. I should have consulted the actual Virgin schedule. Turnaround at SFO is indeed only three hours, or even less. There are two flights daily, one arrives around 3 PM, the other around 7 PM. The corresponding departures from SFO are near 6 PM and near 9:30 PM, which indeed is roughly a three-hour turnaround. – Kevin Keane Jun 9 '15 at 6:40

Supposition on my part but aircraft have to be used intensively or competition may force the airline out of business. This means turn-around times as short as possible. I would hope that while you are held back from boarding all kinds of checks are taking place - equipment functioning, brochures replenished, antimacassars tidy, left luggage and so forth - plus cleaning and replenishment of toilets and galleys. Possibly also refuelling, which is best conducted without passengers on board.

Your Virgin experience would be nice for all but you do not mention this is a regular feature for them. I suspect there was some reason, not standard, why that particular aircraft had completed all the necessary preparation rather longer before take-off than usual.


There are two main reasons.

  1. Most people don't want to spend any more time sat on a plane than necessary. Would you really want to spend an extra hour sat in one of those tiny seats?
  2. It takes a lot of time to get a plane ready. The airline wants to minimise the amount of time the aircraft is idle at the gate. As soon as the passengers have left, the entire plane needs to be cleaned and restocked - that can't be done with passengers on board. It also needs refuelling - which may or may not be legal to do with passengers on board.

Every minute the plane is on the ground is seen as lost revenue for the airlines. To have the plane idle on the ground while new passengers wander on and off the plane just isn't efficient.

  • You can refuel with pax on board but you will be asked not to do up your seatbelt. – Calchas Jun 7 '15 at 11:26
  • ..and turn off electronics. – Burhan Khalid Apr 25 '18 at 5:36

I believe the simple answer is that, pretty much, they let you board as soon as the plane is ready.

Almost always when I board a plane, they are rushing to get it ready for boarding. These days everything almost everywhere runs on a very tight schedule.

It's that simple.

Regarding your experience:

"A few years ago, when boarding a Virgin America flight at SFO, I had a much more pleasant experience. The gate access was already open long before departure time, and passengers leisurely showed up at the counter, had their boarding passes scanned and headed to the jet bridge. No line or big group of people; it happened like if it was train waiting to depart at a terminus station"

Yes, that's happened to me once or twice over the years. It's nice.

But - very simply - it's just not that common. With almost every boarding these days they are, quite simply, rushing until the last minute to actually get the plane ready, finalise paperwork, etc etc. When all of that is finally done, they then say "well you can finally board -- please hurry!"

There's really no mystery here. It's perhaps possible that on certain specific flights, they would happen to never be in a rush, and it would be as in your relaxed example. But it's just extremely uncommon these days.

(You give the example of relaxed loading of trains in Europe at terminals. Note that, with TGVs, indeed occasionally you get the situation that for some technical reason the train isn't ready to board at a terminus until the "last minute" and then everyone has to pile on, "just as usually happens with a plane".) (Indeed, in Japan the schedules for cleaning and prepping trains is measured down to seconds - there's none of the "relaxed loading" you describe!)

Note that the smart-ass answer to your question would be "fly private! it's always the relaxed experience you describe!" :)

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    In some countries the platform for your train is not announced till the moment they are ready for your to board it, which results in the same 'queue up' feature that is so common in airports. – Willeke Jun 7 '15 at 7:07
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    @Willeke: And even when it is, that doesn't change that most trains stop for something between 1 and 3 minutes, which - given a sufficient amount of passengers - still is absolutely not "relaxed". The difference is mainly that train passengers have time to scatter along the whole length of the train and then use many (often somewhere between 6 and 20) individual entrances rather than just one or at most two, as is the case with planes. – O. R. Mapper Jun 7 '15 at 11:32
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    just TBC though, the original train commentor was talking about at the terminus where the train starts. it is perfectly true that in say france (usually) everything is totally relaxed in that situation. when you go to gare d'lyon in paris to get on the train (going anywhere, say geneva or nice, that's the start of the line), the train is sitting there ready for ages (10s of minutes) and you can leisurely get on (or even off) as you see fit. – Fattie Jun 7 '15 at 11:38

You realize a jet airplane costs hundreds of millions of dollars, right? Every moment it spends parked at a gate, instead of racking up revenue-miles, is a dead loss.

The airline wants to turn around every plane (that is, land; park; disembark all the old passengers; clean, refuel, and restock the aircraft; embark all the new passengers; and get back in the air) as quickly as humanly possible.

If a plane is sitting at a gate for an hour or two, that's a mistake, and costly one. It's a mistake that you, as a passenger, may benefit from, in the sense you can board at your leisure, but passengers as whole end up paying higher ticket prices because of mistakes like that.

Once a plane is cruising, the costs of going slow -- the use of the aircraft, the salaries of the crew, and the patience of the passengers -- have to be balanced against the costs of going fast -- the increased consumption of fuel per unit distance and the additional strain on the airframe, but the costs of a plane on the ground aren't balanced by anything but the practical difficulties of quick turnaround.


I know this is an old question but the answer is very simple. In an aircraft's daily schedule, the boarding window is only ~20 min per departure and it's not at the last minute, its when the flight is scheduled to open which is when everyone begins to work that departure. In most cases, immediately after the previous flight closes.

Even if the previous flight closes early, because the aircraft arrived early, operations on the next flight likely cannot begin since crews, ground, cabin and gate, aren't scheduled to work that flight until a certain time.

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