When Can an Airline Give My Seat Away Prior to Departure?

Mar 20, 2016

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TPG reader Jenny sent me a message on Facebook to ask about boarding rules:

“I checked in online the day before an Alaska Airlines flight. A long security line meant I arrived at the gate about 15-20 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. The gate was still open, but they refused to let me on the plane, and said my seat had already been given away to someone else. Should I have been allowed to board?”

Missing your flight is a pretty unpleasant way to start (or end) a trip, and sooner or later it happens to many of us. Knowing what to do when you miss a flight will help minimize the damage, but you can skip that headache entirely by making sure you reach your gate on time. Of course, “on time” means something different to each airline, which is why the first step to not getting left behind is knowing exactly when you need to show up.

With a few exceptions, American, Delta, United and JetBlue all require that you check in at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure on domestic flights, and arrive at your gate no less than 15 minutes prior to scheduled departure. Southwest only lets you check in until 60 minutes before your flight, but gives you extra time at the gate by setting the cutoff at 10 minutes prior to departure. For international flights, you’ll generally need to check in and show up to the gate a bit earlier.

Alaska Airlines is a bit more demanding, as Jenny learned the hard way. You must be checked in for most domestic flights at least 40 minutes in advance, and you must be at the gate with a valid boarding pass at least 30 minutes prior to departure. If you miss the cutoff, your entire reservation may be forfeit, and you won’t be eligible for denied boarding compensation.

One problem with these rules is that they aren’t applied consistently. Most frequent flyers can tell you a story about sprinting to the gate and stepping onto the jetway just before the door closed. On the other hand, if your flight is overbooked and you show up 10 minutes late, you may already be out of luck. Your seat will often have been given away by that point unless the gate agent knows you’re coming (for example, if you’re on a tight connection and staff from your previous flight have radioed ahead).

Alaska Airlines Students Invited for Delivery Flight
Make sure to arrive at your gate at least 30 minutes prior to an Alaska Airlines flight.

Unfortunately for Jenny, Alaska was within its rights to give her seat away. If you find yourself in a similar situation, it’s important to remember that the airline doesn’t really owe you anything. That said, if you’re well-behaved and you have a decent reason for being late, a sympathetic gate agent should be willing to help you out. You might have to pay a change fee or make up the fare difference to be put on a later flight, but that beats having to buy a new ticket outright.

If you often find yourself running late at the airport, you should look into expedited security options like Global Entry, which can help trim the time you spend in line. On a similar note, most airlines offer mobile apps that you can use to check in and keep tabs on your flight schedule. Finally, you might consider just leaving for the airport a bit earlier, especially if you have a comfortable spot to hang out.

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at info@thepointsguy.com.

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