Being Bad By Doing Good: How An Airline Can Be TOO On-Time

I’ve heard American Airlines CEO Doug Parker say that the most important thing, and almost the only thing, that matters for an airline is to run a safe on-time operation.

US Airways has a tendency to start boarding early, and over the past six weeks or so I’ve noticed that American has started to do the same thing. I’ll show up at the gate 30 minutes out and they will already have started the boarding process.

My flight this morning boarded a few minutes early. Boarding was complete more than 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure. And we pushed back early.

That’s awesome, right?

Not really, at least to me.

I want an airline to run on its schedule, to do what it says it is going to do, to be predictable — not to try to arrive on time by deviating from its plan.

When I flight Etihad I’m used to boarding passes showing boarding times an hour before flight. I loved deprating Chennai, India last year when my boarding pass showed a time prior to the aircraft’s scheduled arrival at the airport.

  • Etihad tries to trick passengers with super early boarding times, to get them to show up at the gate. (It doesn’t really help for US-bound flights, where immigration pre-clearance and re-screening procedures inevitably lead to flight delays.)
  • Throughout Asia departure screens show flights much closer to departure than they really are. I regularly see “LAST CALL” appear before a flight has started to board.

These are psychological tricks.

US Airways is getting ready to go before they say they will, which is almost the opposite. And my recent experience with American is that they seem to be trying to do the same. I guess that’s reverse reverse psychology.

I base when I’m leaving the club on when the flight doors will close, and whether I need overhead bin space or not. If I can’t show up at the assigned boarding time and actually secure overhead space near my seat, what good is an assigned boarding time?

I love on-time departures, and I love on-time arrivals even more. But publish accurate boarding times and stick to those.

Thank you.

Have you experienced American boarding before the posted time recently?

Do you like it — is helps with on time departure? Or do you hate the idea, you plan around the posted schedule and they should stick to it?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Agree with anon (especially on a day like today) but I think you’re right, Gary. My girlfriend and I got passed over for upgrades on MIA-SXM because of this absurdly early boarding…showed up at gate 45 minutes before departure as the Admirals Club agent suggested and when we did they were on Group 4 and had given away our upgrade. No me gusta.

  2. I live close to a Regional airport and AA regularly leaves 10 to 15 minutes early if the plane is early. Always inside the time window one has to be through security, but we don’t have any club and the practice certainly isn’t new.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. I’m not necessarily against them starting to board early, though I understand why some are. For me, tell me when it starts so I can get there for overhead space. I can work from my seat just about the same as from the club. Just do what you say you’re going to do, and I’ll be just fine.

  4. Had this happen today my flight from DFW-ORD; I got to the gate 4 minutes before scheduled boarding and they were already on GROUP FOUR! I was quite annoyed when they tried to gate check my bag; thankfully I was in F and they let me past. Very, very annoying.

  5. +1 anon. I heard of slow news day but this really lowers the bar to a new level…complaining about a flight boarding early because you are still in the lounge? My god. Rolleyes.

  6. AA has been doing this for a long time at JFK, probably because compared to some of their other hubs, the planes tend to sit for a long time at JFK in between flights. I’ve shown up 35-40 min before departure time only to find that everyone who was at the gate was already on board (and to find the bins pretty full already).

  7. Do you see a relationship between US boarding earlier, and US having a near-100% success on pre-departure beverages in F? And would you be OK with T-40 boarding on AA if it meant they started actually serving PDBs?

  8. I’ve seen Alaska Airlines West Coast flights board early and leave the gate prior to scheduled departure time. I assume (but did not confirm) that all passengers that checked in on time had boarded.

  9. Not just boarding times, US in general builds so much extra time into their schedules that it’s nearly impossible to tell what that actual flight times are going to be.

  10. Mr. Parker isn’t always right, but he’s got this one correct. Ultimately, a plane ride is a trip from A to B, and most people make plans or connections based on the published time of arrival.

  11. As long as they don’t close the gate until 10 minutes before departure (or until everyone is on), I’ve got no issue with it.

  12. I agree, I missed a flight once because I thought I had 25 minutes before departure and went to the bathroom between flights. When I got to the gate the plane was already pushed away and no gate agent to be found. I ended up having to get a hotel for the night and get the first flight in the morning.

  13. This drives me nuts. If they published an earlier boarding start time it’d be one thing, but I’m timing my gate arrival for when boarding is supposed to start.

  14. I once was a bit late to get to the gate on dfw-rdu because of the tram delay. I got the gate about 14mins before departure time and the agent already closed the gate!!! I had to wait for her to come out and there are 6 of us all missed the flight. She came out and just shrugged and said you all have to stand by for the next flight, which is on the morning the next day. Apparently the flight was empty and she finished boarding much earlier and just closed the gate. When we were standing in line to get on next mornings flight. She asked us to go to a help center counter because she is busy getting ready for the next flight at the same gate, which is 1 and half hour later. What a service!

  15. I agree.

    I find the thing that has me exit the lounge early is uncertainty about the equipment.

    Not so much recently, but more often back in the day, I didn’t want to repeat a missed flight since if on a prop-plane they close the doors 20 minutes prior to take-off, giving the pilot time to figure weight and balance.

    Also, there was a United gate witch who would close the doors a few minutes early and I missed a flight because of her too. Still see her at SNA and all these years later that’s the thought in my mind when I see her.

  16. In KWI I saw the board showing a flight to RUH that left 3 hours (!!) early. Even though it was not my flight, I could feel shivers

  17. I’ve worked in an airport for a couple years in an IT capacity and have heard how important it is to get planes out on time.

    The host airport will fine the airline if it doesn’t push out on schedule. It can get expensive, particularly at chronically late airports. This is why they start calling early. If the agents get to the gate early, and see a swarm, particularly with those asking for seat reassignments (after a previously delayed flight, standbys from said flight, etc), they’ll start to board early to clear out the gate area so they can board those with legitimate seats and deal with the crush of unforgiving standbys.

    Sometimes that gets a flight full and ready to push before scheduled take-off. Once you’ve missed your 10-20 minute window, you’re not getting on that flight anyway. Most airlines start calling for standbys 10 minutes before doors.

    I guess spend less time cooing over your free drink and get to your gate. Airlines are going to take a fine while you wait for your drink check.

  18. Personally yes I agree it’s an inconvenience. Because of needing to get my work gear (cameras) into overhead space, I rely on early boarding, sometimes paying for that privilege. But I also don’t want to hover by the gate and add to that chaos, with heavy and expensive camera gear in tow, until necessary. I’d prefer to sit at the Club and head to the gate when I need to be there. Would be nice if gate agents better communicated with their lounges to advise if early boarding is going to happen.

  19. I like early boarding. It gives me a better chance of an ontime arrival. I prefer to be inconvenienced by early boarding rather than to be inconvenienced by the CHANCE of a late arrival. As Anon said, first world problem.

  20. Or they could announce, or actually show “boarding” on the screen in the lounge. Except they don’t, and you have to actually go to the gate to know. Agree the boarding time should be reliable and truthful.

  21. Wife and I were hanging out in the Singapore lounge at SIN and we left the lounge 40 minutes before our flight was scheduled to departure. We were 1st class on CA so weren’t worried about missing the flight until the first board we saw said our flight was closing the door. So we ran half the terminal and ALL of the next terminal only to find they had just started boarding. We both had 15lb backpacks and were all cramped up by the time we made it to the last gate in the terminal.

  22. At least it’s helpful to know the game that’s being played. Thanks for explaining it. Forewarned is forearmed.

  23. This is ridiculous. The plane doesn’t go anywhere until it has all the passengers. It clearly states on the ticket boarding closes X amount of minutes before departure. If you are not there by that time then it pushes back without you. It is clearly stated on the ticket and if you are blind and can’t see that then maybe you shouldn’t be traveling.

  24. This literally just happened to me this past weekend traveling to Malaysia via Hong Kong on Cathay; going from the The Bridge lounge to the flight I thought I had 25 minutes before doors closed, giving me an easy 20 minutes based on my brisk walking pace. I get to the gate and I see”Final Call” flashing and like an idiot I start to jog. Needless to say the flight actually took another 35 minutes to even close the door. And I thought Cathay was above these practices!

  25. I hate this. It happened to me twice last weekend, on both my outbound AA flight LAX-SFO and the inbound from SFO. I was at the club and naturally assumed they’d stick to the boarding time noted on the boarding pass. They didn’t. Both times I was the last person to board! Never happened before. And we pushed away from the gate 15 minutes early! Unheard of… Fortunately, I wasn’t carrying any luggage, just a large purse (quick 1-day trip), so I easily found space in the overhead bins. I think American needs to change the boarding times. That would solve the problem. But needless to say, I will no longer trust the printed times on the boarding pass whenever I travel American.

  26. I’ve had this happen to me on United (Fully boarded ERJ 30 min out. At 5:45 am, no less!).

    IMO, it’s perfectly fine to start a 5-10 min early, as long as you wait for all of the pax. But it sounds like GAs have enough discretion to close the gate early, even if people are missing! Now that is alarming! The gate should stay open until 10 min prior to departure.

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