Since When Do Crews Dictate Flight Schedules?!

Filed Under: American, Travel

I’m always a bit peeved when airlines start boarding earlier than the published boarding time. Ultimately carry-on space comes at a premium, and when they start boarding super early, it means you have to show up at the gate even earlier to make sure you have space for your bag. Which is sort of frustrating, since time spent sitting on the plane before takeoff is often “wasted” time.

I saw a bit of an extreme example today, which I just have to share. I was flying from Chicago to Tampa this afternoon, and in the Admirals Club I asked if the flight was oversold and they might need volunteers. I haven’t bumped in years, and it sounded sort of exhilarating to do it again. She said the flight was indeed oversold, so I headed to the gate about 1hr10min before departure to add myself to the list, which is super early.


The gate agent there was friendly and protected me on the later flight. She explained I’d be offered a $300 travel voucher, or if they need more volunteers, I’d be offered whatever the highest offer is. I stood near the podium, so it would be easy for her to “process” me if/when it was time.

I then heard her say to the other gate agent “the crew wants to get out of here early today, they want us to board at 12:30PM.” That’s 50 minutes before departure… for a 737!

I must be missing something. It’s great the crew wants to leave early, but unfortunately the airline has published policies as to when flights leave, and all the passengers need to be there for that to happen. So it’s great if 95% of the people are on the plane 35 minutes before departure, but that doesn’t mean the flight can push back.

Sure enough they started boarding 50 minutes before departure. Within 15 minutes the plane was mostly boarded.

35 minutes before the scheduled departure time they made the final boarding call. That’s right, they made the final boarding call five minutes before boarding was even supposed to start.

Sure enough, they continued to make “final boarding calls” every five minutes.

There were some other people who had volunteered to bump, and one by one she called them up and told them they wouldn’t be needed.

18 minutes before scheduled departure she called me up and said “thanks, but we’re ready to close the door and won’t need you, so go ahead and board.” As I boarded, a supervisor was in the gate area and said “we can’t close the door more than 10 minutes out if we’re still missing people.”

In the end, the flight left at 1:27PM, which was actually seven minutes late, and about an hour after boarding started.


So I’m a bit puzzled. I don’t at all mind I didn’t get the bump. That’s by no means a “right,” and it means I’ll get to see my family earlier.

That doesn’t stop me from speculating about the motive on the part of the employees involved, though:

  • The stated motive was that the crew wanted to leave early. Do the flight attendants and pilots not understand that the airline publishes a schedule, and they can’t leave early just because they feel like it? And in the case of a full flight, did the gate agents really think every last passenger would be aboard way early?
  • Or was the real motive perhaps to cause people to misconnect rather than having to bump people? The gate agent wanted to close the door ~18 minutes before departure with passengers still missing.

Bottom line

This isn’t at all a big deal for me specifically — the gate agents were nice, and even though I was the last to board, there was still room for my carry-on. That being said, I can’t follow the logic of boarding 50 minutes early because the crew is in the mood to leave early. What am I missing?

  1. You’re now seeking out bumps?

    AA has been doing this early boarding thing since the merger thanks to HPdbaAA.

    No harm – they held it until 10 min. And bet you got your bags in the cabin without a problem.

    Prefer to board last anyway and avoid the scrum and waiting in the jetway.

  2. Of course I don’t know the circumstances here, but of course “the crew wants to leave early” could mean something more than just their mood. Maybe the captain and first officer know there’s a line of thunderstorms coming (or approaching bad weather at the destination), and that if they don’t get out early they might not get out at all. There could be any number of valid operational reasons for wanting to get out as early as possible.

  3. Come on. You really think they wanted to deliberately leave people behind vs. a bump? I just don’t see airline rank and file concocting such strategies.

    How about the crew was going to be done for the day and wanted to get to their layover? Or heard there was enroute weather and wanted to beat it if possible?

  4. @ Mark — I don’t. My assumption is to take it at face value, that the crew wanted to get to the hotel early. But I still don’t get how they think that’s going to happen when they can’t close the door more than 10 minutes before scheduled departure.

  5. Interesting. I’m sure we have commercial pilots among us. 1- who files the flight plan. The pilot or dispatch? 2- What is the rule for leaving earlier than filed IFR plan?

  6. First, guess you haven’t flown on UA recently where boarding 50 mins on a 737 is practically SOP. With that said, UA will actually adjust boarding times dependent on the plane size. So it’s annoying when you have to board a “big” plane super early, but you do at least get the benefit on boarding an express flight closer to departure. Still 45+ mins to board any plane is excessive.

    Second the one time that at least jumps out to where I think there should be some desecration to board early is if you are trying to beat out weather or VVIP activity. But doesn’t seem that is the case here.

  7. Sorry, Ben, but this one is a miss. They might want to push back early for any number of legitimate reasons. Weather is a good example but I’m sure there are a lot of others. As long as everyone is accounted for I don’t see the harm in closing the door early – especially if it helps prevent a potential operational problem. “My assumption is to take it at face value, that the crew wanted to get to the hotel early.” Did I miss something about a hotel in your post? Otherwise, your statement is inconsistent.

  8. Yeah when they board so early I give up, it’s not worth sitting on board for most of an hour. I would rather show up about 15 mins before departure with a carry on. I refuse to put my bag upstream so I often end up having to get my bag checked.

  9. If it were me, the only difference in what would have happened right after the gate agent said to “go ahead and board” is that there would not have been any overhead space.

    These guys talk a good game, but when it comes to actually enforcing the two carry on’s and perhaps more importantly, the smaller bag/item goes under the seat just doesn’t happen.

  10. @Endre The pilot/captain is responsible for filing the flightplan, but in a commercial operation 99% of the time operations, dispatch, planning, etc. will actually do that. It can (and will) be amended by the crew for any specific item on that day/flight.

    The flightplan is not really a problem, but the slot times will be. You might have slot times for pushback and for departure. If you miss a slot it could be that you will have to wait much longer to get a new one. That by itself will make an average crew try to make that slot and be ready. A bit early boarding usually makes sense: why not have the people waiting at the gate instead sit on your plane already? Gives a bit more time, less stress and if for some reason boarding slows down it’s not going to affect the slot. So, yes , a bit (as in 10-15 min) early start can be a good idea for everyone involved, but depends on the airline. Some airlines have ‘early’ boarding times for this very reason, so don’t overdo it.

  11. I agree, Ben. Why keep us in the plane that much longer? It’s rare that everyone would be onboard and they’d actually be able to push off early. United is really bad about boarding transcon flights super early, especially if the plane has been sitting all night.

    Another pet peeve is when an airline publishes a boarding time 50 minutes before the flight leaves (especially asian carriers) and then doesn’t actually board until 30 minutes before departure.

    Of course, if you know the game in advance, it’s not so much of an inconvenience.

  12. Isn’t part of the problem just how long it takes American passengers to board? The FAs know that even if every passenger is at the gate 30 minutes prior, they’re not gonna push back early because it takes most passengers a solid 5 minutes to wrestle with their carry-ons and find their seat. They pre-board 90% of the aircraft to at least give themselves a chance of departing early, *if* the remaining passengers do get to the gate with 15-20 minutes to spare.

    I’ve been traveling a lot in Asia and Australia lately and have seen wide-bodies board in, like, 8 minutes flat. If that were standard in the U.S., I’m sure you wouldn’t see crews so desperate to start boarding so insanely early.

  13. Reading these comments reminds me yet again how thick people are now. Last time I looked if you don’t get to the plane on time you are SOL so for those who are implying its no big deal to leave early you need to look into assisted living and get off your high horse. I am interested in reading Ben’s blog I am not interested in reading some arrogant ass___les comments about Ben being holier than thou. Good report Ben keep it up

  14. Maybe I am missing something but I do not understand why they should not start boarding early. They can get everybody on board as early as possible.
    The “Boarding Time” displayed on your boarding pass is the time you have to be at the gate. They certainly can’t leave earlier than that – unless everybody who has a Boarding Pass is on board.
    If they start boarding early and at the Boarding Time everyone is at the gate, they can close the door and report to Air Traffic Control that they are ready to push. And, by the way, if not everybody is at the gate at boarding time, to my knowledge they are allowed to leave – unless the missing passengers arrive from another flight.
    You mentioned this happened at Chicago – an airport not unknown to congestion. The crew may want to get an early slot in order to beat the departure jam.
    And as for “the crew wants to get out early” – well, maybe they just wanted to get out of Chicago (and that means airborne) on time.

    A personal remark: I hate those people I see sitting at the lounges and then arrive at the gate 5 minutes before departure time with everybody else seated for 10 or more minutes.

  15. Heh, same story for the SFO flight. Flight was oversold by 4 and still ended up leaving the gate early. Didn’t get the bump, though, since security was a cluster.

  16. Yes, there pilots who read this.

    There can be many reasons to board early; some legit (trying to beat an airfield closure because of impending weather) and some not (crew wants to get home early.) The bottom line, though, is that we cannot leave early and end up leaving folks at the gate with seats available. I do fly for AA and the company shoots for a door closure of 10 prior so we can push back 5 prior. This policy tends to change every few years, depending on what the latest trends are that may be causing delays/missed flights.

    Being a 737 captain, I know that the standard boarding time is 35 min prior to departure. I can see boarding and leaving early for a legitimate reason (like wx) but that would normally happen if all booked passengers are on board. However, we can’t just leave early on our own, dispatch may have to amend our flight clearance first.

    Sorry for the long explanation. And by the way, layovers aren’t that exciting to leave early for…going home is another story 🙂

  17. Problem is on an IFR Flight Plan you have a few minutes either way, to depart or arrive, if not you must file a new flight pan…

    You do not just take off when you feel like it…

    Spent a lot of time in the left seat…

  18. @Alex Actually, most airlines (including AA) publish a cut-off time that is different than the one on the boarding pass. For AA, that is “at least 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure” for domestic flights, and 30 minutes for international flights. If they close anytime before that, and they will have to accommodate and pay any applicable IDB benefits to anyone who shows up “on time” but can’t board.

  19. Lucky, I share your disregard for flights boarding before the stated boarding time, for the same reason – overhead storage space, but also being stuck in a congested jetway, which is a time-water.

    I’m also aggravated by airlines who don’t bother to notify their passengers when their flight is obviously going to be delayed. I can’t count the number of times I’ve hurried to the gate, knocking over old ladies and leaving small children in a heap in my wake :-), only to arrive at the gate and find the previous flight is still offloading! Why don’t they just figure this out and give us an additional 10-15 minutes of time in lounge, instead of standing on our heads in the congested boarding area.

    @AdamH, regarding UA, I share your disdain for boarding earlier than advertised. But I’ve flown 325,000-400,000 miles/yr on UA for the last several years and this practice is limited to certain airports (IAH, SNA for example) and is never more than 10 minutes earlier than advertised in my experience. I’ve learned to be at the gate early at these obnoxious airports.


  20. No flight can leave unless the owners of all checked baggage are on board surely. Oh, forgetting Americans don’t do checked baggage~ no item it too large to ram into an o/h bin, is it!

  21. I long for the days when SouthWest strived for a “20 minute turn”. We weren’t half-business and half-tourist+non-flyer. We got on the plane quickly and off just as quickly. Things were punctual and efficient. Now it is frustrating and hilarious sometimes, watching a tourist repack bags to match the published dimension and weight limitations.

  22. It seems like this has become SOP on several of the majors. The last time I got stranded in ATL, it was a similar circumstance. The inbound connection from DC came in late– several of us were coming over to connect to the ATL-LAX non-stop. We run over and arrive at the LAX gate 14 minutes before scheduled departure time. The door’s closed so we go to the Gate Agent, who smirked, told us it was closed (the tractor was pushing it out as we spoke) and handed us hotel vouchers.

    We only had Golds and Silvers in our group, no Diamonds or better, and the implication was that they would have held it for Diamonds+ but that he had plenty of standbys to put butts-in-seats to capacity.

    So, none of the connecting passengers had enough status to win the Delta Face-Off.. the standbys all got a lucky break. And, a half dozen of us missed the last LAX flight of the day.

    Of course, the hotel voucher was for a hotel that had no rooms that night, but that’s par for the course with the Dick Anderson Airline That Has Our Back.

    So, yeah, I believe the airlines play a lot of games in cases where they have plenty of passengers to fill seats– board early, leave early, somebody’s not going to have a seat when the music stops.

  23. I had a flight connection from DFW-MCO last week on AA flying in First. We landed and after changing terminals, had 25 min before the stated boarding time. Why not get from BBQ at Salt Lick only 2 gates away. So after eating our lunch and getting to the gate 5 min before the stated boarding time, they are already at Boarding group 3. The line is 1/2 way up the jetway. We get to our seats and see another issue. Apparently someone left their phone up at the gate area and boarding is almost finished. The plane staff tells the gate agent to please go up and check for the phone. Her response was to get the phone number of the person and they will call them if the phone is there and deliver it to them. The flight staff again asked to go look for the phone cause how can you call if the person has no phone? Then I comment was made “WELL, then YOU’LL have to EXPLAIN for why we PUSHED BACK LATE!!!” First, poor form having this conversation right in the galley in clear view of most of the First Class cabin. Also makes me wonder if AA is monitoring the gate agents so close that the early boarding is to ensure an on time departure and not be a black mark on their metrics?

  24. Several years ago my Lufthansa flight left Mumbai 50 minutes early. They did have all the passengers as Mumbai airport can be chaotic. The passengers I think all preferred being on the LH flight than Mumbai aiprort

  25. Sometimes the gate manager may approve an early departure because the crew is about to max out in allowed consecutive working hours. It is easier to pacify disgruntled pax that missed a connection than to find a new crew.

  26. Depending on the time of your scheduled arrival, it might be that the desire to leave and arrive early had to do with the Cubs game.

  27. @Lucky

    James ever so slightly hinted at this, but a flight can actually leave early and leave people behind. Now, they can only do this with dispatch approval and a very good operational reason, such as weather, traffic flow, or crew scheduling reasons. I mean, sometimes it’s better to leave early, take what you’ve got, and pay IDB compensation to those who aren’t on board, than it is to cancel the flight, screw everybody, and leave the down line connections hanging too.

  28. Sounds like the time my tenth grade history teacher said that we were ahead of schedule, so he’d move the test from Thursday to Wednesday. Seriously? Who does that?

  29. Speaking of boarding in 8 minutes, I was in business class on EgyptAir DXB-CAI
    the other dat. They waited until 15 before the flight to make the call for business class. It must be SOP for Egyptian passengers and gate staff to ignore the fact they called business class only, as everyone on the flight rushed up to board and was allowed to board.
    We pushed a few minutes late. I had a 1:10connection in Cairo to Sharm -el-sheik.
    Interestting was to handle immigration and customs: Go to connecting flights desk, where you are directed to go to one of two bank windows acposs from the desk to purchase a visa, walk up to immigration officer who puts visa in passport and stamps it, then you clear security for the domestic flight, with you ending up in the domestic terminal at destination and your bag going around and around in the international terminal. Apparently this is done elsewhere also.

  30. Wow, the credit card referrals must not be working if you need to get the measly $300 for being bumped. LOL

  31. Whats the range on vouchers for voluntary bump? On oaccasion I have wanted to put my name on the list but always been afraid I would get locked into a bump for a measly $100. But if $300 is kind of standard or even on the low side then that is pretty attractive in certain situations.

  32. 50 min for a 737 is def overkill. Garuda started boarding a 747 15 mins before scheduled departure when I flew em last July, and we were ready to go in 20 mins ish. Departed a bitlate, but nothing out of the ordinary.

  33. @Rand – If you’re only interested in reading Ben’s articles and not comments, how about you just read his articles and don’t read the comments instead of throwing a hissy fit.

    And while you’re at it, how about you actually read it properly? The flight left LATE not early, and no one has said flights should leave early and leave people behind. In fact, if people complied with the “early” boarding, perhaps the flight could have left on time….

    As for Lucky, I find it incredibly hard to believe that the crew would do that so they can get home ten minutes early. It makes no sense whatsoever and is actually rather insulting on their part that you’d assume they’d break the rules and greatly inconvenience a few people for such a measily gain… Hours my tempt them, but minutes…

  34. We can all make fun of Southwest but the times I flew them it was a wonderful change to see an aircraft boarded and dispatched so efficiently. I would consider moving to Japan for the same reason.

  35. Wait, what am I missing? They *boarded* early(ish). No attempt was ever made to leave before the scheduled time. All they did was extend the boarding time so there’d be a better chance that they could leave on time or only slightly late (which, in airline speak, is “early”).

    This is actually a great idea, and if the plane is there, then it makes perfect sense to lengthen the boarding time for so many reasons: less of a rush to board, no huge lines of people in the airport trying to board first, the people who were there earlier are more likely to find a spot for their carry-on, and people who would rather be on the plane than in the airport can be more comfortable.

    They boarded up to the point that they had to (based on the scheduled departure time). Why is this even worth talking about?

  36. After reading some of these “gee in certain circumstances we boarded early” comments, I’m back to wondering if there isn’t some of what I call PEI’s at work.. (I call those Perverse Economic Incentives– strange behaviors that seem inconsistent until you follow the money trail.)

    Lucky’s flight was oversold as was the one DL recently stranded me on in ATL. If you are the gate agent and you see you have inbound connecting passengers coming in late, but also are oversold, don’t you (or at least The Company) have an incentive to mis-connect the late arrivals, IF it means you don’t have to pay out the Denied Boarding Compensation to those passengers standing there in front you? Everyone of the oversold passengers standing there is basically $300-600 in essentially cash compensation paid out by the company. If YOU BOARD them, push back early, and then face the breathless passengers who sprinted over from Concourse F to Concourse B… you can blame “operations”, “weather”, “the pilots had to get to Spearmint Rhino early”, whatever, because IN THAT CASE you only need to hand out a hotel voucher– with a negotiated cost to the airline of between $25-30.

    Or, in the case of the last time Delta did this to me, ZERO since the darn hotel had no rooms anyway.

    All I’m saying is there are corner cases where, if you are oversold, you have EVERY INCENTIVE to board and push back early, since you save $250 to $550 per bumped passenger to “Bump by Leaving Early”.

    Ben, have you ever thought about this? I’m curious if other people are seeing strange “we are going to board early” behaviors in cases where the flight is oversold?

  37. @Chris

    “I guarantee you gate agents don’t care about the compensation paid out…”

    How can you say this with such assurance? They have measures and metrics like every other job in the company– They clearly get measured on not pushing back late. And, a $25 bag fee seems really important to the ticket counter, so I wondering why picking up $500 for every customer that they can “bump by not bumping” wouldn’t be measured by a penny-pinching company like Delta?

    In my case that transcon 757 clearly pushed back ahead of the window. And, it pushed back full.
    Leaving 6 of us to find other accommodations for the evening… I count that as $3000 the gate agent made for the company that night.

  38. That $3,000 saved is just an unintended consequence of gate agents wanting to get the flight out on time. A one minute delay causes them grief with their supervisor. Giving out $3,000 in vouchers because revenue management didn’t get it right doesnt need explaining to a supervisor.

  39. @Chris

    “That $3,000 saved is just an unintended consequence of gate agents wanting to get the flight out on time. A one minute delay causes them grief with their supervisor. Giving out $3,000 in vouchers because revenue management didn’t get it right doesnt need explaining to a supervisor.”

    So, they push 14 minutes early!?! I don’t know, with Delta it’s funny how these ‘unintended consequences’ always fall in their favor. Especially on a flight to LAX where there are evening slot limitations anyway, doesn’t do anyone any good turning racetrack patterns out over Palm Desert like we were the other day. Pushing early on the last flight of the day, with connecting passengers coming over, doesn’t ring true for me.

  40. At least in Europe this happens a lot. Its the pilots who prepared the flight, and they often know beforehand if there would be, for example, a strong headwind.

    In such case leaving earlier simply means arriving on time. Leaving on time means arriving with delay. So the wish to leave as early as possible is not so strange.

    And in many cases it does work. Obviously if people are missing 30 minutes early they cannot depart, however if boarding starts early and everyone is there early (which is generally the case)…then why not. Especially from outstations, holiday destinations and hubs belonging to other alliances (=no transfer pax) most people will be at the gate early, and having boarding start early will actually allow them to depart earlier.

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