Downtime

Who’s Worse: the Person Who Shows Up to the Gate 15 Minutes Before a Flight, or the Early Airport Person?

A low-stakes debate.

An airport kiosk counting down the time, with arrows point to the words "15 minutes" and "2 hours."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

When you’ve voted, donated, volunteered, and screamed into the void, what’s left? Leading up to Election Day, Slate is offering a series of Low-Stakes Debates as brief respites for your all-consuming anxiety.

This time: How early must you be at the gate for a domestic flight?  

Jeffrey Bloomer: I will begin with my opinion on this, which is: If I approach the gate and the flight is not already boarding, or if there is still a line at the gate, I think, “Hmm, I guess I should go get a beer.” If I am at the gate more than 30 minutes before takeoff, I feel like I’ve done something wrong.

Susan Matthews: There is a difference between “What time do you get to the airport?” and “What time do you get to the gate?” It is definitely better to be one of the last people to board the plane, perhaps particularly because they usually end up dealing with your suitcase for you. But I get there between one and three hours early. Longer for international flights. I will admit that sometimes I just get to the airport early and hang out, do work, etc., from a terrible airport restaurant. I’d argue that the time you get to spend wandering the airport before you go to the gate is one of the REASONS to get to the airport early.

Jeffrey: Oh, no, Susan.

Rebecca Onion: I try to have 45 minutes at the gate and the reason is, there is so much chaos in flying and I don’t really understand how it works, and if my flight has been rescheduled or delayed, I want to be able to get in the line and talk to a person about it. I have no idea if “talking to the person at the gate” is actually better than other ways you can be put on a different flight, but I’ve been terrorized by enough different delay situations that I like to have the human option.

Jeffrey: No one should WANT to spend time in the airport.

Susan: Disagree! Airports are fun. I think this is a lasting result of me never flying for any reason other than fun for many years, and I still basically rarely fly for “work,” or anything that isn’t explicitly pleasure. But airports are basically where vacation starts.

Rebecca: I used to like killing time in airports, but now that I have a kid, I do NOT. And if you miss a flight, having a child with you is the difference between “just killing time with my laptop” and complete hell.

Susan: I don’t have ground to stand on regarding the kid thing, but the one time I flew with my niece it was really fun. We looked at planes! She loves planes. But I understand kids change things.

Derreck Johnson: My aversion to arriving early for flights is probably an extension of my anxiety of flying. I’m not SCARED of flying, but I also don’t love it. So if I get there like an hour before the flight starts boarding, sure … I’m heading right to the bar. But it’s just adding time for my anxiety to build. If I arrive like five to 10 minutes before boarding begins, or even as they’re boarding, and I can generally walk right onto the plane, my time to think and dwell about things decreases drastically.

Rebecca: Ah, interesting. That adds a whole other factor. You are nervous about the actual flying part, and not the maybe-missing-your-flight part.

Derreck: I’ve only missed a flight ONCE in my life. And it was LaGuardia.

Susan: LaGuardia is both an airport you want to avoid and an airport you sort of have to get to early!

Jeffrey: LaGuardia is NOT one you have to get to that early! It’s usually so fast to the gate. But we digress. It is much more pleasant to walk onto a flight once everyone else is already seated, just before they close the door. It eliminates one of the worst parts of air travel. Like if they are not calling out my name, it’s too early. I’ve never missed a flight because I’ve waited to board once I was there. It’s always getting stuck at security or misjudging traffic. But we’re talking fewer than five missed in my lifetime. Worth it, IMO.

Rebecca: Goddamn. I would rather do almost anything than miss a flight—be first on the plane, sit at the gate for an hour. It makes me feel so out of control.

Susan: One thing informing my opinion here is that I now live in Charlottesville, Virginia, which has an absolutely horrifying little tiny airport. Flights are canceled routinely. Before I moved here, I was visiting my boyfriend, and he, a perpetual “get to the airport at the last second–er” convinced me to get dinner before he dropped me off. We did that and then drove to the airport, and, in a horrible turn of events, he missed a turn, then realized he was going to RUN OUT OF GAS.

Eventually, we got to the airport, and I was in pretty dangerous territory, and when I went up to the counter, the Delta lady told me not to bother going through security because the flight was already canceled. Like, she wouldn’t let me go, and rebooked me for the next day. BUT the people who were already through got switched to a Charlotte flight that then had a connection to New York.

I was very mad.

Rebecca: Oh, no, Susan, I hate this story. The only times I’ve missed flights, I was with my husband, who pulls shit like this. I am conflict-averse and have a strict routine and so do not deal well with this.

Jeffrey: See, I have never understood why missing a flight is so fundamentally hard for people to fathom. In most cases, you just get on another plane. But in addition to no-kid privilege, I guess maybe I have big-airport privilege there.

Susan: Yes, you have BAP, Bloomer.

Derreck: I should specify for me that this is all a flying solo scenario. With wife and kids is a different beast. (You almost always get to skip security lines and board first when you have a small child.)

Susan: When left to my own devices, I get to the C-ville airport so early that they often let me on an earlier flight if there is one, which I always take just because it is guaranteed to actually be departing. (You really cannot understand how bad this airport is until you have been there.)

Derreck: You can just be put on an earlier flight? Just like that?

Susan: Yes, if you’re there, they’ll do it simply because they are trying to get as many people out of the airport as possible, and they know they’re a disaster.

Jeffrey: I have found every airline policy is bullshit if the person is motivated to help you. Literally nothing is real. Unfortunately, they are often less than motivated to help.

Rebecca: That’s what I don’t like, Bloomer. I don’t like having to intervene in this bureaucracy and talk to people to try to get them to do my bidding, when I know they CAN but maybe might not if I’m not good at asking. I prefer simply to be at the gate 45 minutes ahead of time.

Jeffrey: But like 95 percent of the time you don’t have to deal with it at all, because it is fine to be late! I am fine sacrificing the 5 percent of times it blows up.

Susan: What happened the last time you missed a flight, Bloomer?

Jeffrey: The last one I missed was very annoying. I was at the gate 15 minutes beforehand, after an unexpected detour on the way, but they had already closed the door. A PILOT FOR THE AIRLINE came up and defended me. But the flight attendant was very strict, so I ended up with a flight two hours later.

Susan: Two hours to spend drinking and sampling fast food in an airport, at least.

Jeffrey: It was before noon, unfortunately. But yes, it was fine overall. See: fine!

Derreck: The last time I flew, it was a red-eye and I did my best to time it so that I wouldn’t get to LAX too early. I think I called my Lyft exactly an hour and a half before my scheduled takeoff time to account for L.A. traffic and whatnot. And of course, this night the freeway decided to be empty. My Lyft was JAMMING because there’s like no one out there. Security is DEAD. I get to the gate an hour before takeoff.

Jeffrey: The worst!

Rebecca: I think maybe I need to chill out. I prefer a) staying home altogether b) driving c) getting to the gate 45 minutes ahead of time to minimize the chance that I have to depend on the fortuitous appearance of a sympathetic pilot.

Susan: Honestly, people’s feelings about airports are basically just a litmus test for how much they need to constantly be in control.

Jeff: OK, wait, we have a late guest. Henry, Slate’s transportation czar, is here to make a final ruling.

Derreck: Not this guy.

Susan: I knew it was going to be Henry. Henry’s gonna tell us to bike, not fly.

Henry Grabar: It’s best to arrive at the airport at the latest possible moment, and also to board the plane last.

Derreck: OMG OK! Yesss. I always pegged Henry for a “three hours early, knock a good book out” guy.

Rebecca: Pfffft, just some more child-free privilege.

Henry: I don’t disagree, Rebecca. As for arrival at the airport, if I’m not sweating on the way to the gate (both from anxiety and from exertion), I’m too early.

Jeffrey: You stand for what is good.

Henry: The feeling of walking right onto a plane that leaves in five minutes … it’s so, so good.

Rebecca: Y’all are living the supreme American dream of the free individual unburdened by the constraints of relationships and systems. God bless.

Henry: The truth is, when you have TSA PreCheck (privilege, but not a very expensive one!), you can time this stuff pretty well! I do sometimes worry that the free time I create for myself before leaving for the airport is consumed by obsessive machinations about my timing.

Rebecca: See, that’s what I kind of suspect. There’s a cathartic moment of walking on at the last minute, but there’s so much mental sweat leading up to it.

Henry: That’s what makes it addictive.

Susan: True joy is found in getting to the airport early and having no choice but to read a Dan Brown book.

Jeffrey: I am cutting this off before you guys spiral anymore. Glad we settled this!

Henry: As usual, I arrived right before this plane took off, and what of it?