Final boarding — the all-important (and random) airline 10-minute rule

by Janice Hough on January 16, 2013

Most frequent airline travelers have been just barely on one side or another of the “ten minute rule.”

While flights have a scheduled departure time, the gate agent will close the door to the plane ten minutes before departure. Which, depending on what side of the door you’re on, can either mean a huge sigh of relief, or a delayed or even ruined trip.

Sometimes it’s the passenger’s fault, either for checking in late or dawdling in the airport. On other occasions, it’s because of a late connection. But, the most maddening thing is that the rule isn’t consistently applied.

Last week, two very frequent travelers ended up on the wrong side of the door.

The first involved a United Global Services passenger, the airline’s highest frequent flier rank. The frequent flier got to the airport seven hours in advance of his scheduled red-eye and barely in time for stand-by on a earlier flight.

The first agent he talked with told him there was space, “Run!” But when he got to the gate, the door was closed and despite empty seats, the agent there told him he couldn’t board, although the plane didn’t leave for another 15 minutes.

In the second case, a United 1k (100,000 miles a year) traveler landed late into Denver on a connection from Washington, D.C. to Bozeman. He still had about 15 minutes to spare, was upgraded, and was only three gates from his connecting flight.

So, while he felt confident, the traveler still raced off the plane and to his connecting gate. While the plane had not departed, he was told he had just missed the cut-off. Again, they had closed the door to the ramp. It was the last flight of the night, too. So, he ended up spending the night in Denver. (United did at least pay for his hotel.)

I understand that schedules matter and there are a number of factors involved in holding or not holding a plane. What I don’t understand is why airlines don’t stick to one rule instead of closing the door early when it is convenient for them and keeping passengers waiting on board in other cases.

While these clients both missed flights, I’ve had situations where the planes were held and have been on flights delayed for connecting passengers. (In more than one case, just for one or two people.) There doesn’t seem to be a consistent pattern.

Moreover, often even airport reservations agents’ departure boards aren’t updated with actual real flight times. Sometimes a flight that shows boarding can be closed. More than once I’ve gone to a gate where it’s less than 10 minutes prior to departure and the door is still open.

(The last time, when I thought I’d missed a connection in Denver, I ran at top speed, only to have the gate agent laugh and ask, “What’s your hurry?” Adding, “We wouldn’t leave without you.”)

In these recent cases, I can understand why United wanted to close the door on the Dulles flight. It was already over an hour late, although I have to wonder — with empty seats and a valued customer, would it have made that much difference? As an added inducement to United, the traveler had an upgraded first class seat on the sold-out redeye flight, which no doubt they could have used.

One thought is that the crew could have been reaching their maximum hours and United either needed to close the door or get a new crew; though, if so, presumably the gate agent could have easily told the traveler.

The Denver to Bozeman flight problem makes less sense. It was the last flight of the day. It was United’s delay that made the connection tight. And, the connecting plane left on time, so it was less likely to be a crew issue.

Travelers understand that “stuff happens.” But, the apparent capriciousness of how airlines decide and when they will hold a plane, or even just keep the door open a few more minutes, is maddening, especially when gate agents give no explanation.

In a perfect world, I’d love to see some approximate standards for holding flights — especially the last flight of the night to anywhere — or at least more communication.

At this point, however, even a travel agent or reservations agent with access to up-to-date departure information still can’t tell exactly when an airline door is going to be closed or even always when it is already closed.

My rule: Ten minutes before departure time is when getting on a plane is no longer within your control. It’s better to be sitting or standing around the gate area waiting to board than looking for another flight or a hotel room.

So while it is within your control, run, don’t walk, to the gate.

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  • rgoltsch

    I am thinking this is a case where the airline gives gate agents some leeway in doing their job, and they take advantage of it. We complain all the time when the airlines are forcing their agents to rigidly enforce the rules…….then when they have some freedom, we complain. Maybe that gate agent has to head to another gate for another flight, so closing this one 3-4 minutes early gives them time to get to their next assignment? That way they can serve more customers at their next location a few extra minutes?

    While it might seem unfair to the person that is borderline late arriving at a gate, to those on the plane, it is nice when a plane departs a gate early. It is aggravating when I am sitting on a plane full of people and they delay us for a connecting passeger. We wait 15-20 minutes, and finally 2 people stagger on last minute. This is especially annoying when I have a connection on my next leg, and my connection time is now reduced. It is all a matter of perspective.

    As for my rules, it is always be at the airport 2 hours before flight departure and be at the gate 30 minutes before flight time. Sure, sometimes that 30 minutes is impossible to meet, especially when my connection is delayed……but I also try to never schedule myself with a connection of under 60 minutes. Airports are too big, and the doors to planes close too early.

  • Bill

    although this article focuses on UA, the exact same problem is happening at DL, AA, and every other carrier. i think what we are seeing is taking away control and decision making from the gate agents – and when the rule is not being enforced, it is because an employee has decided to break the rules and actually provide customer service.
    all the CEOs can say what they want about customer service, but it really is at the bottom of their priority list. in the old days of regulation, that is what an airline competed on – customer service – since fares for the most part were the same from airline to airline. and an airline with superior customer service had many repeat customers. but now, the CEO could careless about loyalty for the most part – it is all about profits and filling seats. and through revenue management, that goal is obtained.
    united pays all of its employees an on-time bonus if they achieve a certain percentage of on-time flights in a month. it is a hard metric – either the plane was on-time within the defined window or it wasn’t. and the pressure from middle management is to hit the target – so doors close at 15 minutes prior even if the plane isnt ready to go. i have heard so many times from gate agents “i am not taking the delay – charge it to cargo” when a flight clearly isnt going to leave on time even though the boarding door is closed. (i do not have solid proof, but i think bags are also not loaded on flights when it gets close to departure time so as to not “delay” the flight). the on-time stat seems to be the only one consumers and the DOT care about these days, and therefore the focus is on getting a plane out on time at the expense of everything else.
    heck, the airlines pray for misconnects – they overbook so much these days that misconnects allow them to not have to bump people. (seriously, when is the last time you were on a flight that was not 90%+ full?)
    and so it goes. the only time the door does not close early is when the airline is not finished boarding due to something within their control (late crew, late equipment, catering, aircraft servicing, etc). it isnt that the 10 minute rule isnt so much not applied consistently, it is that the airline cannot always apply it. i would be interested for the AA, DL, or UA CEO to directly answer this question – “if a top elite pax was connecting from a flight and could not be at the gate until 5 minutes prior to the departure board, what would you expect the gate agent to do?” if any of them said “hold the plane”, their are either a) lying or b) do not have a grasp of what really happens day-to-day at their airline.
    minimum connecting times (MCT) havent been adjusted for the increase in regional jets however – and that leads to a majority of the delays. even when a regional jet arrives on time (something we know is rare because they really push the scheduling of these aircrafts to the most insane levels), you have to add 15 minutes to the arrival time at the gate to get your gate checked baggage. and if you are at any major hub, it takes you sometimes 10 to 15 minutes to get from a regional jet gate to a mainline jet gate. so 30 minutes right there – and if you connection is only 45 minutes, well you technically are already too late. MCTs should be increased to at least an hour at every hub. but airlines do not want to do this because pax do not want this. and under the guise of providing what the customer wants, the airline is setting the customer up for frustration.

  • Krysia

    Had a daughter spend the night at the Denver airport because the door closed 5 minutes before departure Thanksgiving week, 3 hour security line at DIA…but the non-revs were happy they made it on…AA agents at DIA not nice. Before you ask…friends at AA looked up the flight …

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1068051376 Susan Liberantowski

    This is an argument I have with hubby all the time…he thinks that since we are checked in they will hold the plane for us….or if our connecting flight is late they will hold the next one for us. So far, we have been lucky.

  • The Book Doctor

    United recently denied me boarding on a connecting flight. We landed half an hour late, but still 20 minutes before the onward flight was scheduled to depart. I ran and arrived at the closing door, the first of about a dozen passengers from my original flight. The next flight was nearly full (only 3 of us got seats on it), so it seemed absurd to deny us boarding well in advance of the “10-minute rule.” United clearly lost money on this caprice.

  • dcta

    Just playing Devil’s Advocate – were they likely to lose more money by paying gate overage fees? Just one more reason they will try to push off on time and arrive on time…Yes, I note this was 20 minutes, not 10.

  • bayareascott

    There really isn’t that much mystery here.

    First of all, it is not the 10-minute rule. While it may vary from airline to airline, UA contract of carriage requires that passengers be present in the boarding area no less than FIFTEEN (15) minutes prior to departure. If you are not there, your seat may be given away. This takes time to process, and other people are waiting for seats, and company policy is to have the door to the jetbridge closed 10 minutes prior to departure. Just because you show up at 12 minutes prior does not mean you are entitled to your seat. Of course, passengers always push the envelope. When the old UA had a 10-minute policy, people routinely sauntered up at 8 or 7 minutes before departure or less. When they get told to hurry and ignore the agents, do you think that makes agents more or less likely to try and wait for someone the next time?

    Most agents will not disobey policy for fear that they will be written up and disciplined for it. It is easier for them to use company SOP as a defense.

    Gate agents do not always know the reason they are given the instructions they are given. Operations rarely provides all the information unless pushed (and they do not always have all the answers either). Kind of surprised at you Janice for your comments about gate agents, the lowest rung on the ladder.

    Flights MAY be held for connections, but this is not unlimited, and it is not a science. More people are more likely to be held for, or premium customers, but it is NEVER a guarantee. Are wrong decisions made sometimes? In my opinion, absolutely, but those are decisions made by operations, not by gate agents. Agents can request operations to hold, but that is almost never going to happen for a single-digit number of passengers.

    Problems with holding for connections:

    1) What the aircraft or crew may be required to fly downline. If the airplane is scheduled to arrive, and then 40 minutes later is scheduled for another departure, it’s not getting held. AND no one may even know about this to tell you.

    2) When holding for connections, sometimes passengers disappear. There are 15 people coming, and 13 are on the plane, and two are nowhere to be found. You never know when people will show up.

    Who cares if the airline allows you to book a 30-40 minutes connection in SFO or ORD? That doesn’t mean you have to book it! I’ve seen passengers book a 30 minute connection time and then miss their connection when their first flight was 10 minutes late. Delays are part of life in everything, not just air travel. Plan for it and give yourself some leeway.

    Stop dilly-dallying around the airport, people. No time for bathroom or food breaks when you have 30 minutes to make connections. Don’t give agents the opportunity to close the door on you (when it is within your power to prevent it), yet people do this all the time.

    rgoltsch is right. Why should 120+ people have to wait for a handful? So be grateful when a flight is held for you, and don’t act as if you are so important that it is a guarantee, and hurry your rear to get there.

    More often than not, a gate agent is going to try and err on the side of the customer. Agents are the one that plead the case for holding to operations because agents are the ones that deal with the passengers who don’t make it. Agents are the ones who advocate for the customer. People sitting underground in windowless cubicles making the final decisions never talk to a customer. Who do you think is on your side?

  • mikegun

    15 minutes before departure, expect the gate to be closed. If you find it isn’t…great for you! Very simple concept!

  • LFH0

    This situation leads to the obvious question, of what relevance is the published schedule? An airline has a variety of times with which it has concern, including the time to start boarding, the time to end boarding, the time for the aircraft to push back from the gate, the time the aircraft takes off into the air, etc. All are important for the airline’s operations systems. But what is of importance to the passenger? The critical time is really the latest time for which he or she can present themselves at the gate and be accommodated on the flight. For the passenger, that is really the “departure” time, for after that time the flight has, for all practical purposes, “departed” and is no longer available for travel. From the passenger’s perspective, most of whom are interested in knowing the outermost times (i.e., the latest one can board, and the earliest one can alight), the operational times are irrelevant . . . apologies to the airline enthusiasts who do have that personal interest. Perhaps the publishing of airline schedules should be so adjusted.

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