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.

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