Here’s why showing up at the gate just 15 minutes before takeoff is a bad idea

When Stephen Oualline and his daughter arrived at the gate in Kona, Hawaii, for their Alaska Airlines trip San Diego, they were told that the plane had already departed. After a rebooking and an unplanned overnight in Oakland, Calif., Oualline wanted the airline to reimburse him for the money he spent to get them home, but it refused. Now he wants us to help him — but can we?

Oualline’s original flight was from Kona to San Diego. He says they arrived at the airport more than two hours before the flight, checked in, checked their bags, transited through security and stopped to eat at one of the airport restaurants before proceeding to the gate.

When they arrived at the gate, it was 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time, and the gate agent told them the flight had departed, full, 30 minutes prior to departure. Oualline says the airline’s representative refused to rebook him at no charge, and he was forced to purchase new tickets for himself and his daughter — with a 13-hour layover in Seattle.

They found the gate assigned to their new flight, but the next flight to board at that gate was to Oakland, not Seattle. Oualline decided to trade in his tickets and go to Oakland instead. Once they arrived in Oakland they were told that there was no Oakland-San Diego flight.

Oualline says, “Alaska dumped us there. My daughter and I had to spend the night in the Oakland airport with no food, no hotel, no luggage,” and they booked flights home on Southwest Airlines home to San Diego the next morning.

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With a total of $5,800 in unplanned expenses, Oualline asked Alaska Airlines for a refund, claiming that they were involuntarily denied boarding, and citing FAA regulations regarding overbooking. Alaska offered him a $150 credit towards his next flight, but he refused. So he filed a complaint with the FAA and never received a response.

That’s when Oualline reached out to us. He could have reached out to the executives for Alaska Airlines that we list on our site, but he felt that the airline stonewalled him and showed a “total lack of concern” about his predicament.

Our advocate agreed to review his case and asked for clarification on his arrival at the gate. Oualline stated that he arrived at the gate 15 minutes prior to the flight’s departure.

Unfortunately for Oualline, Alaska Airlines sets forth rules on when travelers must arrive at the gate and Oualline didn’t arrive early enough. The airline specifies on its Check-in & boarding cut-off times page that all passengers must be at the gate, with a valid boarding pass, no later than 30 minutes prior to the flight’s scheduled departure.

If a guest isn’t present 30 minutes prior to the flight, Alaska may cancel your reserved seats — or your entire reservation.

Our advocate provided all of this information to Oualline. But Oualline continued to insist that he and his daughter were indeed victims of involuntary bumping — and he started arguing with our advocate.

Oualline insisted that the FAA dictates that passengers must be at an airline’s departure gate a minimum of 10 minutes prior to a flight’s departure, and he arrived at his gate 15 minutes prior. But he fails to acknowledge the text on gate arrival times included in the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights website:

Each airline has a check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the airport. For domestic flights most carriers require you to be at the departure gate between 10 minutes and 30 minutes before scheduled departure, but some deadlines can be an hour or longer. Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as much as three hours before scheduled departure time. Some airlines may simply require you to be at the ticket/baggage counter by this time; most, however, require that you get all the way to the boarding area. Some may have deadlines at both locations. If you miss the check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold.

The text clearly indicates that each airline sets its own rules for check-in and gate arrival. Oualline simply didn’t arrive at the gate on time, and was unavailable for boarding. Alaska Airlines either allowed their two seats to fly empty or reassigned them to passengers on stand-by.

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Alaska Airlines personnel may or may not have had the authority to rebook his flights at no charge, but they clearly didn’t have to do anything for him. If Oualline argued with them the way he argued with us, and made the threats about FAA complaints that he claimed to us, they may have decided to stick to the rules instead of bending them for him.

We’re not sure why Oualline decided to exchange his newly purchased tickets to go to Oakland. Alaska Airlines doesn’t have a direct flight between Oakland and San Diego — in fact, they would have had to fly from Oakland to Seattle (where he was originally scheduled to go), and then on to San Diego. This may be why, when he arrived in Oakland, the airline couldn’t accommodate them onward to San Diego — the amount they paid for the Seattle-San Diego flight was likely less than the cost of an Oakland-Seattle-San Diego flight.

Since they seem to have arrived in Oakland without onward flights, the airline does not owe them accommodations or meals for their layover. Their bags likely were on the original flights from which they chose to deviate — hopefully, the luggage eventually caught up with them back in San Diego.

Alaska Airlines offered Oualline a $150 credit on a future flight. Had he negotiated rather than flatly refused and moved on to the FAA, he might have been able to get a better deal from Alaska. But the reality is that Oualline made a series of bad decisions that directly resulted in his multi-day flight debacle.

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We can’t help Oualline, but we can help other airline passengers by advising you to learn the airline’s rules on flight check-in and gate arrival time — and follow those rules. If you do follow them and still find yourself sitting at the gate after your flight departs, we’ll be glad to help.

Michelle Bell

Michelle worked in the travel and hospitality industry for almost two decades. Born in Germany, she has lived in 15 states and two foreign countries, and traveled to more than 35 countries. After living and working in Southeast Asia for several years, she now resides in New Orleans. Read more of Michelle Bell's articles here.

  • IGoEverywhere

    This one sounds like a very inexperienced traveler or one that believes that the rules are made only for him. NOBODY that flies on a plane, unless there are special circumstances, gets to the gate that late! They close the doors to the plane 10-15 minutes before take off in order to allow all of the passengers to make idiots of themselves trying o store their oversized luggage, negotiate seating on some airlines, and finally calm down. That takes a ful 15 minutes.
    Did the plane take off 15 additional minutes early? That would indicate that standbys were boarded, the aircraft was full, and then Alaska may depart early.

  • Joe Reimers

    I agree completely. It sounds like the traveler made a lot of very poor decisions. Airports have plenty of signs indicating when you need to be at the gate area or risk losing your reservation. Boarding passes have boarding times clearly printed on them. And I have to wonder if they were paged by the gate agent since they were checked in.
    The subsequent decision to fly to Oakland is even more baffling. Oakland isn’t near San Diego and the traveler clearly didn’t research the availability of connecting flights. Alaska didn’t “dump” them there. They chose to go there instead of home via Seattle. There’s a huge difference.
    At the end of the day, this is a classic case of “how to do everything wrong and then try to blame someone else for it.” The one thing they got right was showing up early and clearing security with plenty of time to spare. Everything else was a series of very poor decisions. It’s not difficult: boarding time is boarding time. Signs and announcements to “be at the gate 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure” aren’t gentle encouragement, they’re what keep flights operating on time.

  • Kevin Nash

    The paper boarding passes for Alaska Airlines always show the boarding time and a departure time. The mobile boarding passes only show the boarding time.

    Looks like OP decided to ignore the boarding time and show up after he finished his leisurely meal with his daughter.

  • SirWired

    Aside from not noticing the boarding time, I too am baffled as to why they suddenly decided to fly to Oakland, and then accused Alaska of “dumping” them there. We’re they hoping to piece together a Home Alone-style stream of short hops whose only advantage is that geographically the year are a little closer? Maybe he was hoping Alaska could arrange for a Penske truck and a friendly Polka band to get them the rest of the way?

  • Bill___A

    Looks like they made a series of unfortunate mistakes. Expensive errors, but not Alaska’s fault. I cannot help but wonder if the airline staff were unsympathetic for some sort of reason. I’ve heard of people missing flights before and them being able to change for a nominal amount – as long as they were polite with the gate agents. In the end, the OP was the responsible party and it looks like he will be the one paying for it.

  • doug_jensen

    This all worked out as the passengers deserved.

  • ctporter

    Alaska went far beyond what the customer deserved. Why should Alaska even consider giving them vouchers for future flights when the customer clearly does not think the standard written rules apply to them? It seems as if this customer was out to game the system from the beginning hoping for a windfall at the airline’s expense.

  • C Schwartz

    Oh wow. The traveler just does not want to (or lacks the capacity to) admit that this entire problem was his own doing. This was not a security delay, an accident on the road, but a passenger that just took too long at a restaurant in the terminal. And then changing destination, and blaming the airline for that change. I am surprised Alaska Airlines did anything for him.

  • whatup12

    I think this is one of those times when having elite status helps–I have among the highest elite status on United and Delta and thus, Star Alliance Gold/Sky Priority by extension on partner airlines. But i still show up no less than 30 minutes before departure. If I happen to be on an airline in coach without status, I am there at least 45 minutes early because well…you never know and they may be trying to get out early and would have no problem leaving me.

  • Annie M

    When you act as your own travel agent, you better know what you are doing. Why he would book a flight to Oakland is beyond my understanding. And then to cite the wrong rules in a complaint?

    Who on earth shows up 15 minutes before a flight when I am willing to bet his boarding pass told him what time boarding started?

  • Annie M

    You need the be at the gate by the time printed on your boarding pass. If you aren’t, you risk losing your seat.

  • y_p_w

    Well – my wife is a serial procrastinator. Sometimes I think she’d rather be late than be early thinking it’s a waste of time. One time I was yelling at her to get out of the house with our kid, and to the airport (Oakland BTW) to visit her brother. It was on Alaska Airlines, and they did close the door about 10 minutes before departure time. I think if they were there 2 minutes earlier, they would have actually been allowed to board. I’ve been allowed to board a flight (earlier than planned) with a minute before they closed the door. However, all of those cases were likely when they weren’t full.

    Part of showing up at the appointed time is in an overbooking situation and/or where there are standby passengers waiting to get on. That’s when they start assessing the no-show situation. But also if it’s an empty enough flight then they might also close the door early to take off earlier.

    There are some airlines (Spirit for example) that don’t mess with passengers who can’t follow the rules. They do everything they can to push off early from the gate, so trying to time getting there before the door closes is a horrible idea even if the flight isn’t full.

  • Robin

    “My daughter and I had to spend the night in the Oakland airport with no food”

    Oh for goodness sakes. That says more about you than it does about an airline.

  • kanehi

    Arrived two hours before the flight? Kona is a small airport and there’s really nothing to do there but to wait. Most travelers know that airlines advise you to be there on a certain time for boarding and when the gate will be closed which is usually 15 minutes prior to departure. Why didn’t he just ask Alaska airlines to fly them directly to San Diego instead of making a mess of things?

  • Bill

    I hope their meal in Kona was hearty! :-)

  • Richard Mengelkoch

    A fool and his seats are soon parted!

  • pauletteb

    Check in early, grab a coffee, then sit back, relax and either read a book or watch the Human Show. The OP and his daughter probably were paged, but if they were in a restaurant, they might not have heard it . . . sometimes I can barely understand the PA system while sitting at the gate. In the end, it was the their responsibility to know the rules . . . his belligerence and threats didn’t earn him any favors.

  • Gary K

    My favorite part of this story “…and he started arguing with our advocate…”.

    Priceless, and it appears that the sentiment is unanimous — might never happen again! Thank you, Qualline.

  • SierraRose 49

    Alaska Air is clearly not at fault. It is stated on the Alaska Air website to get to Kona International 2.5 hours before your flight and to be at your gate 30 minutes prior, not 15. This is a very SMALL airport. 2 terminals, 5 gates each. Only 1 restaurant past security – Laniakea Cafe. Mr. Oualline made a series of mistakes which cascaded into an expensive lesson about travelling in our modern times. Being argumentative doesn’t help right ‘wrongs’ one feels that have been made against them either.

  • whatup12

    Yep, but the advantage of being elite is that they have never given away my seat. Maybe will happen one day, but not to date over literally millions of miles of flying. But whenever i am on airlines where i have no status, 100% agree!

  • BubbaJoe123

    Nope. Positive bag match isn’t required for domestic flights.

  • Michael__K

    There are some bizarre details here:

    “Oualline decided to trade in his tickets and go to Oakland instead”
    How does one even do that without incurring a full change fee and also signing some paperwork? If the destination changes then it is not eligible for a same day flight change.

    “he filed a complaint with the FAA and never received a response.”
    Does he mean a DOT complaint? All non-safety complaints go to the DOT Consumer Protection Division. Is he sure he completed and submitted a complaint? He should have received an acknowledgment. And then a written substantive response from the air carrier within 60 days. If it’s been 60 days and he hasn’t received that then he should follow up… If the air carrier doesn’t respond to a formal complaint by the prescribed deadline then that is a DOT rule violation in and of itself.

    “the gate agent told them the flight had departed, full, 30 minutes prior to departure”
    Has he checked the data on He missed the boarding deadline anyway, but if the flight really left a full 30 minutes early, after supposedly completing the boarding process and waiting until less than 30 minutes before departure to cancel his seat and give it to someone else (without asking for volunteers) then that would be a little suspicious. The DOT can ask Alaska if the passengers are being included on Form-251 2(c) (passengers denied boarding who did not qualify for denied boarding compensation due to failure to comply with reconfirmation procedures).

  • Michael__K

    Boarding time doesn’t mean you are allowed to board yet. According to Alaska’s own website, actual boarding for passengers who are not in first class or in some other special category doesn’t start until 20 minutes before departure:

    20 minutes before departure: Finally every else boards in two groups, starting with customers seated behind the exit rows.

  • Michael__K

    What I don’t understand, if Alaska was following their own rules, is how were they even allowed to change their destination — unless they paid a change fee to do so?

  • Kevin Nash

    Obviously. However, if OP was actually present at the gate at the boarding time printed on his boarding pass, he and his daughter would have eventually boarded the plane.

  • Michael__K

    The customer was late according to the rules, but there’s a bit of a double-standard here.
    According to Alaska’s own website, boarding for passengers who are not in first class or in some other special needs category doesn’t even START until 20 minutes before departure. And in practice general boarding is not completed in 5 minutes or less, particularly if the flight is full.
    The reason the gate arrival deadline is 30 minutes is so they can cancel seats and give them away to overbooked passengers without confirmed seats or to stand-by passengers. Otherwise there would be no need for passengers who normally aren’t even going to be allowed to board for another 10+ minutes to be at the gate. And this deadline contributes to gate-crowding which often impedes passengers who are in the early boarding groups and actually slows down the boarding process.

  • Michael__K

    Possibly…. Not if the plane already left at the boarding deadline and/or if the passenger didn’t hear their name called. It’s surprising if the passenger didn’t hear their name called or hear a last call for boarding even if they were not at the gate given that there are only 5 gates in the whole terminal….

  • SirWired

    The replacement ticket was a walk-up ticket, so a change in destination would have been possible quite easily, since it was almost certainly an unrestricted fare.

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