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At the airport

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This topic offers extended tips for that part of your journey by air between the entrance door of the airport terminal until the time you board your aircraft. See Fundamentals of flying and Tips for flying for less specific tips.

Most international airport terminals are standardised, with similar procedures for check-in, security, immigration and customs. English is the standard language of aviation.

Get in

If you want to reduce stress get to the airport at least an hour before the recommended minimum check-in time.

(Check with your airline for recommended minimum check-in times. This can be as little as 30 minutes for domestic flights from regional airports in countries such as New Zealand that do not have security screening to as much as 3 hours for an international flight to or from the US where the security theatre can be extensive and time consuming. This extra hour will also give you a buffer for delays on the way to the airport.)

If for some reason you are delayed and you're worried about missing your flight or the flight status indicates that you are in danger of missing your flight, find a member of your airline's staff or talk to staff at the security gate. If you are really in danger of missing your flight, they can arrange for speedy check-ins and for you to be moved up in queues. But they won't notice if you don't tell them. Calling for late-passenger instructions while you are on your way to the airport can also help. The plane will not wait for you; but it might wait if you're one of 50 connecting passengers on a delayed flight.

Check-in

Check-in for domestic flights can usually be done on the airline website up to 24 hours in advance of departure. If you have no baggage you can just proceed directly to your gate and flight with your printed boarding pass. However, some carriers insist that they inspect and verify your travel documents before allowing you to go through security, do this but there is usually a special lane provided for you. If you have baggage, drop it at the bag drop lane. Removing old tags from your bag before proceeding to the bag drop will speed up this process and avoid redirection.

If you can't check-in online, the check-in kiosks at the airport are much the same, and issue a boarding pass for you. You then need to go to the bag drop if you have more than carry on luggage.

If you have to check-in manually, be prepared for longer queues. Have your documentation ready before you get to the counter. If other methods of check-in are made available, avoid using the traditional check-in counters unless you have special requests. Some carriers already charge a fee for using traditional check-in counters.

See also choosing aircraft seat.

Express/expedited security lanes

To avoid the delays associated with normal security checks, some airports offer express security lanes for frequent travellers who have pre-registered, or sometimes for passengers who have paid an additional fee.

In cases of heightened security, the expedited security check lanes may be suspended or closed.

Flight cancellation/delay

When a flight is cancelled, the reason given is usually some kind of technical or weather-related problem. Sometimes the real reason is that so few passengers have checked in that it is cheaper for the airline to cancel the flight and rebook the passengers on a later flight, or even on another airline. If a flight is cancelled, the airline is obligated to get you on the next available flight to your destination, but interpretations of "next available" vary and, for some low-cost carriers like Ryanair, this may mean a long wait indeed. Unlike with overbooking, passengers are not legally entitled to any compensation except the unplanned expenses of food and hotels. Within the European Union, the same compensations like denied boardings apply, unless you have been informed more than 14 days in advance or the airline claims they're not at fault like weather conditions (which they typically do).

Beware that weather can cause the very strange phenomenon of being denied boarding because of weather for a flight that does depart on-schedule. This is usually caused by weight limits and takes two forms:

1) Predicted weather may make the flight longer, and so increase required reserve fuel. Most planes can't take a full load of passengers and full fuel; if they must fill the tanks more than expected, they might have to leave some people behind.

2) As it gets warmer the takeoff roll increases (the air is less dense and so decreases wing lift as it slightly decreases engine thrust) but the runway doesn't get any longer. If the air temperature gets hot enough, they may have to reduce weight for the plane to get safely in the air.

Occasionally flights are delayed... for many reasons, e.g.:

  • The aircraft may have a maintenance problem.
  • Weather or other conditions at your destination or an enroute airport may have made one of them unusable.

Airlines never unnecessarily cancel or delay flights... it costs too much, in money, perturbs many other flight schedules, and generates poor public relations. When they do delay or cancel, they usually go to great lengths to arrange seats on another flight, sometimes even on another airline. If a cancellation has been caused by them, they are required by law to pay you certain compensations and/or arrange lodging and/or meals until you can be flown to your destination.

Boarding

The order of boarding may be specified by the gate attendant when the time comes; often:

  1. Passengers in First class
  2. Passengers with special needs (such as physically handicapped, elderly and those with young children)
  3. Passengers in Business Class and those passengers holding top tier cards of an airline alliance's Frequent Flyer program
  4. All other passengers

Budget airlines often board passengers who have paid extra for priority boarding first, followed by those at the back of the plane.

When no order for boarding is given it may help if those seated at the back were to board first, but this doesn't usually happen, and aisle blockages are common. To estimate where your seat is, check your airline's website for seat maps or ask staff at the gate. Regardless of the boarding order given, you are always free to remain in the boarding lounge until the final call for the plane. If you choose to spend the least time possible in a cramped aircraft cabin, just wait in the boarding lounge until you see the last person at the gate, and join the end of the queue. Just remember, the boarding gates close 10-15 minutes before departure and no announcements will be made outside the gate area.

Transfer

If you arrive at an international terminal for transfer to another flight, you usually do not need to pass immigration. However, passing security is usually required.

Spending time at an airport

At a transfer stopover, or if you arrive very early for your flight, you might find yourself with hours to spend on an airport. Here are some activity tips:

  • Walking. The human body needs regular exercise.
  • Moderate drinking.
  • Using toilets. International airport toilets are, in most cases, more comfortable than lavatories on the aircraft.
  • Smoking is usually restricted to designated smoking rooms and outdoors, and totally prohibited in most places.
  • Shopping.

Lounge Access

Even if you don't hold a first/business class ticket or are a member of the premium tiers of your frequent flyer program, there are ways for you to obtain lounge access:

  • Priority Pass [1] allows you to gain access to lounges at most major airports for an annual fee plus a per-use fee. (However, Priority Pass only allows entry to one or two lounges per airport, and at large airports they may not be close to the gates you're using).
  • Some airlines allow one-day lounge entry for a fee.

Immigration/Customs

Passing immigration booth can take long time. Have your documents ready, and listen carefully to official instructions.

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