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.

  • 19
    Simple: the plane is more important than you. Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 19:15
  • 1
    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
    Commented Oct 4, 2014 at 3:40
  • 4
    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. Commented Jun 6, 2015 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
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 11:21
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    @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. Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 6:40

5 Answers 5


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.

  • 8
    Today I learned the word "antimacassar".
    – screwnut
    Commented May 4, 2019 at 16:28

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
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 11:26
  • ..and turn off electronics. Commented Apr 25, 2018 at 5:36

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.


Some points are already covered by other responders but there is at least one more point that is missed and I'd like to cover that (esp contrasting priorities as I'll explain).

  1. In terms of maintenance and fueling, they have to do that and pass the plane as inspected and still good to go before deciding to continue as the next flight.
  2. In terms of liability, the airlines want to minimize impact to them. Also general safety guidelines dictate that all the work is done before letting humans on board (in a confined space). There are a million problems that could occur starting from the terminal to take off to landing to terminal again. But the best chance of escape or reasonable rescue effort still would be in the terminal if not outside the airport. So again, less time in the aircraft means lower risk
  3. Here is the conflicting priority to the above two. Airlines is a low profit margin business. As such any opportunity to increase profits shouldn't be missed. Business and First class are the money makers for the airlines. They'd rather jump multiple hoops to satisfy one such traveler than 3 or 5 economy passengers. By starting off a queue with the moneymakers going in first, the attendants get a chance to let them settle, offer drinks/food and make sure they are fine. Then they could board others based on other priorities (perhaps economy-plus, perhaps upgraded comfort seats, old persons, pregnant women, etc).

If you remove any sort of priority from the above and put aside the maintenance work then the logical thing to do to expedite the boarding process (with a front boarding scenario) is to actually start boarding from the last row (tail side) first and proceed towards the beginning. This way, the ones in the last row won't prevent the previous row from boarding and settling while they are still adjusting their bags and carry-ons.

  • "the logical thing (...) is to actually start boarding from the last row (tail side) first and proceed towards the beginning" - I think I have seen this done a couple of times, where passengers were asked in sets of 5 or 10 rows to come and board. The issue was that it was usually entirely ignored by passengers (as evidenced by the fact no-one shifted their position in the queue once sets of rows allowed to board now were announced, and no-one was asked to wait at the boarding card check). Commented Sep 5, 2023 at 13:31

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