I turned up at the airport today in what I would consider moderate but not great (since the train was late) time:

  • 35 minutes before bag drop-off closed.
  • 75 minutes before departure.

To cut a long story short, there was an incredibly long line and only 3 counters open. I was able to squeeze in the priority line and had 3 minutes to spare before the 'bag drop-off deadline'.

There were people behind me who would have been past the deadline. I'm curious what would have happened to them?

  • I've heard about boarding being denied for turning up 1 minute late.
  • Then again, it's partially the ground staff's fault for being inadequately staffed.

What would have been the likely fate of these passengers?

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    75 minutes is a lot less than the amount of time they recommend. Don't be surprised if you don't get much sympathy from them. – Loren Pechtel Jan 2 '15 at 23:12
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    I suspect it may vary depending on the airline, and even the terminal in question – Gagravarr Jan 3 '15 at 2:14
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    This check-in time is set to a fixed time because the captain and staff have to calculate how much fuel the aircraft needs, food, etc. I have missed a flight badly and had to pay 2x for another ticket two weeks later. But if they allowed them to check-in after the deadline, that can delay the flight and put many people in trouble. It's unfortunate when you are the victim, and it's not the airliner's problem anymore. – AKS Jan 3 '15 at 10:20
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    @LorenPechtel Plenty of airlines recommend turning up at least an hour before the departure time, especially for domestic or short-haul flights. 75 minutes is not "a lot less than" one hour. – David Richerby Jan 3 '15 at 12:39
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    @LorenPechtel Delta: "The recommended arrival time at the airport is 75 minutes prior to departure when traveling within the United States." – David Richerby Jan 3 '15 at 20:03

Ultimately it would depend on the ground staff working that day.

The check in rules are fairly cut & dry, you are supposed to be checked in XX minutes before departure. End of story. Most airlines recommend that you arrive much earlier than that to make sure you have time to be checked in. In your case you arrived at 75 minutes, which just barely qualifies for suggestions by Delta for domestic flights (they suggest 2 hours if it is an international flight).

If the check in counter is understaffed, then there is a chance that an agent will poll the passengers in line to see if any are tight against their departure times and perhaps move them to a priority line for check in. In a case like this there would likely be some forgiveness if you checked in a couple of minutes.

If the counter has a standard staff quota, then they will likely not have much forgiveness for late check ins.

Ultimately it is the passenger's responsibility to arrive early enough to complete check in, security procedures and present themselves at the gate for boarding at a designated time. If you are late for any of them, it is 100% your burden to bare.

  • 4
    To be fair you have used a qualifier as part of your statement; you said "75 mins barely qualifies". Qualification and/or time is a binary issue. Either you were on time or you were not. There is no grey area of "you were on time but not on time enough." I think the OP has a valid point; if he arrived within the allotted time frame frame and the staff are too slow to process everyone; what would be the result? – Venture2099 Jan 3 '15 at 10:27
  • I would also add that arriving on time or early is one of those scenarios in which if all customers arrived at the earliest possible moment the result would be no different than if they were evenly distributed throughout the entire time box. Arriving early only works if everyone else does not arrive early also. Exactly the same way that staying seated and joining a boarding queue at the last minute only works if everyone else does not also stay seated... – Venture2099 Jan 3 '15 at 10:30
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    @Venture2099 "Arriving early only works if everyone else does not arrive early also." Nonsense. If everybody arrives early, then everybody stands in a long line for a long time but everybody gets on the flight: arriving early has worked for everybody. In contraast, if everybody arrives right before the deadline, almost everybody will miss the flight. – David Richerby Jan 3 '15 at 12:41
  • Not nonsense at all. You are not answering the OP's point or mine. If the airline do not have the requisite staff required to check everyone in and they all arrive early; the queue will still take as long as it would have done had they drip-fed into the airport up to the minimum time. The OP asked what happens if they do not process people in time even if they arrived within the guidelines. So, not nonsense. If 200 flyers have a 1 hour window to arrive between...say 2 & 3pm. It makes no difference if all 200 arrive at 2 or 50 flyers arrive every 15 mins. It is the same result. – Venture2099 Jan 3 '15 at 12:59
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    @Venture2099 How would you go about proving that you allegedly arrived "on time"? Moreover what counts is the check-in time. Airlines will close the check-in X minutes before the gate closes or the flight leaves. It's up to you to make sure you check-in on time. On a personal note I have been in the exact situation described in the question. Turns out no one was left on the ground due to excessively long baggage drop-off queues. – JoErNanO Jan 3 '15 at 18:00

As others have already written, it might depend on the airline, ground staff, airport, terminal, maybe also your status/class of travel, etc. But it's certainly not the case that inefficient handling or the fact that airport personnel seems partly responsible for a problem makes a big difference.

I once missed a flight because of very long and unusual delays before carry-on screening (I learned afterward that many members of the security team were in training and screening began late that morning). I was at the airport long in advance and followed all instructions (was even directed to a line that turned out to be slower based on the flight I was supposed to board) but I had no luck getting help from the airline. I had to rebook myself on another flight at my own expense.

That's just one anecdote in a slightly different situation (different companies are usually in charge of security screening and check-in/ground handling) but the most important point is that airlines will not necessarily assume responsibility for long queues at the airport.

By contrast, once you are “in the system” (checked-in/baggage dropped/present at the gate) and something bad happens, it's much easier to get help in reaching your destination or at least some form of compensation (e.g. for lost luggage).


There are always extenuating circumstances; however, I once arrived quite early and it seemed there would be no problems. I had just been released from a two month stay in the hospital after having sustained a TBI (traumatic brain injury). I had just learned to walk again, so had a wheel chair waiting for me at the front. Going through the ex-ray machine, there was a delay because of a cast on my arm and they needed to leave to get a special piece of equipment. We waited at the gate for some time. I had to unexpectedly go to the bathroom which I required assistance from my sister. I had been in a comma at first in the hospital and my body was very run down. We came back to the gate and waited for the three people in front of us to go through the gate and then the flight attendant started closing the door in front of our faces as we stood there in disbelief. She said, "Sorry, but it's time.". A woman nearby saw what was happening and jumped up to give her grief about treating a "crippled girl" like that, but it made no difference. My point is that a lot of it depends on the individual staff that may have just had a bad day. I don't believe the 15 extra seconds it would have taken us to cross the threshold would have delayed the plane.

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