Why would a commercial airplane leave earlier than scheduled?

I’m not an experienced flyer so please forgive me if this is a particularly stupid question!

Why would an airplane leave earlier – I mean, 20 minutes earlier, which seems to me a relatively significant amount of time – than its scheduled departure? Isn’t that counterintuitive for the many people who would be hurrying to catch their plane?

I’m assuming when this happens, the airline (Continental Airways, in this case) just bumps them to the next available flight, right?

Unimportant longwinded backstory for the question is hidden in a spoiler.

[spoiler]My sister’s been travelling from the Philippines home to NYC since last night at 11PM. The three legs of the journey were Manila > Shanghai > Toronto > NYC.

The Shanghai - Toronto flight was supposed to arrive at 6:55PM ET, which would have given my sister a 1:30 respite until the Toronto - NYC flight took off at 8:25.

However, the Shanghai flight was almost an hour late, arriving at 7:55. Now, this still would’ve given her hypothetical enough time to dash for the final flight, right? A half-hour? (Assuming customs wasn’t an issue, but I don’t know how that works.)

But I now see that the flight scheduled for 8:25 actually left at 8:04… 21 minutes early. Which means she’ll have to take an even later flight, making this schlep a 24-hour experience. Oy![/spoiler]

Depends on the airport and/or airline.

Some require passengers to be at the gate by 30 minutes prior to departure otherwise the passengers can be off-loaded. If that were the case and they knew that connecting passengers were only landing 30 minutes prior to departure then they would know that it would be impossible for anyone connecting to get to the departure gate prior to the cut-off.

Just a stab in the dark, but it would explain it.

It does sound like a crappy thing to do for a passenger making connections. Or NOT making one, in this case…

I would hope if she complained, they would offer her some kind of compensation.

We have airline pilots on this board who can give full explanations but there could be logical reasons why an airline would do this that make sense overall. If all the people are on board that are likely to be on board, it makes sense to push back from the gate early. The airport itself may be having scheduling difficulties with available gates and need to free some up for arriving flights as soon as possible. There may also be impending weather or traffic conditions that are about to put departures on a lengthy hold unless they leave right away. In those cases, it makes sense to get the majority of people on their way and worry about the few that didn’t make it later rather rescheduling many more people who would be late for their connections at the arrival airport if they don’t make it.

Hm I definitely didn’t consider any of that stuff, thanks, Shagnasty and Lord Mondegreen. The weather’s clear at both ends of the flight as far as I know, but the rest of the possibilities you mention all make sense.

digs, I heard from her about a half-hour ago but forgot to ask if the airline (for the Toronto/NY flight that left early) was offering some compensation. Turns out she wasn’t able to get a flight tonight after all, so they’re staying over. Do airlines reimburse you for that sort of expense, or do they just give you some free miles for the trouble?

I guess I’ll emphasize a question I asked in the spoiler. What does happen in a multi-leg, multi-country journey, when it comes to customs and baggage? Do the passengers have to go through customs/inspection each time? I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t – security would seem to demand it, right? If so, it seems to me that any itinerary that requires a connecting flight of less than, say, two or three hours, would be incredibly bad planning.* Or am I wrong? (I could very well be wrong. As I mentioned, I don’t fly and am embarrassingly ignorant.)

  • Not on my sister’s part… on Travelocity’s. :slight_smile:

For security reasons, airlines will not allow passengers to separate themselves from their luggage(*), so even if there is enough time for the people get from Gate A to Gate B on a connection flight, if there isn’t enough time to get the luggage from Plane A to Plane B, the passenger will not be allowed to board Plane B. There’s a good chance Plane B is already at it’s max takeoff weight anyways, since a passenger and luggage absent 30 mins before takeoff would mean the airline will make the choice to either load other luggage (“lost” on previous flights) or additional cargo. There’s no real logistical way to sort through that and remove it to allow a late passenger to get onboard at this point.

Additional reasons are a take-off slot available on the runway (keep in mind arrivals and takeoffs at busy airports are about 2 minutes apart…and delays can be long!), and if all other paperwork, loading, etc is complete, there’s not much reason to wait 20 mins more at a gate before their scheduled take-off time if they can leave now. Think how often, as a passenger, you’ve been happy about planes arriving at your destination early!

Weather, or other arriving flights that may have been delayed at their departure end might also cause an airport to move planes from the gates in order to handle those new arriving passengers.
*unless it’s the airline that chooses to hold the luggage back and send it on later due to whatever reason (this is the most common “lost luggage” story; the aircraft was too heavy, so luggage rather than passengers get removed).

Too late to edit: Countries are, for the most part, operating on security and operating agreements through ICAO or similar, and they tend to all have an “international connections” terminal at the airport. Passengers are limited to this zone from arrival from one country and onto the plane towards their next destination. Luggage is forwarded to the next plane on the same tags as on the original plane, without (generally) additional security other than random baggage checks. If passengers leave the connection terminal(s), they and any purchases/items from outside are scanned at a security checkpoint.

IME, 1.5 hours is recommended for most international connections unless there’s reason to believe that bad weather or heightened terrorist alerts or something will cause additional delays. Certain airlines/airports/countries are better known for their on-time efficiency than others, and when choosing a travel plan, it’s worth considering this. In your sister’s case, the airline operating the Shanghai-Toronto leg of her flight will *probably *be responsible for compensation/hotel stay/food vouchers in Toronto (otherwise she should contact the agency she booked the flights through). Usually compensation involves a discount on a next flight taken within the year with the same airline, though. In Toronto, the airline might give her food vouchers to use at Pearson airport… that happened to me once, and I found they don’t give change. After spending 2$ for me at Tim Horton’s, I just paid for other people’s coffee until my $7 voucher ran out! :smiley:

I’d be surprised if an airline in the US took off 20 minutes before it was scheduled.

I understand the flight involved was in Toronto. Still, that would be just weird.

Not to dispute your story, but this is not likely.

If you choose, provide flight numbers/carriers and scheduled departures.

I had a flight a few months ago from Minneapolis to New York City that pushed back from the gate 20 minutes early and took off 15 minutes early. Minneapolis is a smaller airport and they likely knew that all the connecting flights had either already landed with plenty of time or weren’t going to make it (a friend was supposed to be on that flight with me but her connecting flight to Minn had been cancelled altogether). With the new requirements that everyone check in an hour before their flight there aren’t last minute passengers to accommodate.

I have had flights leave 20 minutes early in the US, also, from major airports. However, I believe in all of those cases everyone was on board.

Also, I have been separated from my luggage in a very tight connection situation (literally sprinting through the airport to make it before the doors closed), but it was a connection between airlines, so that may have had something to do with it.

A biggie is weather, just because it was clean at both ends doesn’t mean it was clear in the middle. It doesn’t mean that delays snowballed in one region into the region being traveled.
Another biggie, somewhat weather related is, wind. If the winds change a lot, it can impact operations, fuel usage, rough ride, etc.
Too little to go on at this late hour, as one would have to research the weather between points at the early departure leg of the flight.
But, they could have had a snowball delay issue about to hit that airport as well, where departing at scheduled time could cause them to be caught well behind all other aircraft and be delayed taking off by an hour or more, I’ve personally witnessed that mess!

Holy cow, thanks a million for those informative posts, mnemosyne, and everyone else as well. Especially interesting about the security issues. I had no idea that passengers making international connections were sort of ‘quarantined’ between flights, though it does make good sense to do so. That policy must be a drag when layover times are significantly long. (I’m used to Amtrak, where during transfers of lengthy durations, you can go a-wandering around the city.)

Ooh that would suck… I highly doubt she’ll have reason to venture to Shanghai, Hong Kong or the Philippines again any time soon. She was only there for a wedding!

Heh, I’m trying to figure out how saying my story isn’t likely isn’t disputing it. :smiley: But no, I understand your doubt. Actually it makes me feel a little better to know it does seem unusual to others too. Anyway, I was wrong, it was 16 minutes early, not 20.

For citing purposes, it was Continental flight #3311, departure date May 29. Here’s the official flight status checking thingy on Continental’s page, which also shows that after leaving Toronto 16 minutes early, they arrived in Newark 21 minutes early. Guess the wind was at their back, lucky bastards. And here my poor sister is suffering in the wilds of Toronto. :slight_smile:

If the layover is long enough to bother, you can leave the airport and visit the city and come back to the airport before your flight, but you have the same security hassles as usual. Each airport and airline operates slightly differently, but generally your luggage is checked through to your final destination, and you either never see it between flights, or you simply collect it when coming off your first flight, bring it to a check-in for the next flight, and then you’re on your own for the length of your layover.

I spend a lovely few hours in Calgary with a couple of Dopers on a layover a few years back. My friend just booked a UK-Australia flight with a 20 hour Dubai layover, in order to visit Dubai. She did something similar to get time in Hong Kong a few years back.

Ah, thanks again, mnemosyne. That’s reasonable and also a relief to know.

–Or even after the flights, as it turns out! My poor beleaguered sister arrived home this afternoon, but her luggage didn’t. :smiley:

A few years ago I saw a flight leave like 20-30 minutes early due to weather. There was a severe tornado-generating storm approaching that they knew would ground flights for over an hour. They took the passengers that were available and left. The thinking was if they waited, they would be delayed, but they had a later flight they could put the missing passengers on. The airline personnel had a hard time explaining the logic to the passengers who missed the flight.

I’m thinking it might only suck in the USA where you have to sit in the in-transit lounge. I connected through Seoul/Incheon last month, and I had the entire airport at my disposal it seemed. You must have to pass through immigration/customs when leaving the gate area, because I didn’t see them. It was the best layover I ever had (twice, both ways!).

Although I didn’t take advantage of it, there’s also an in-transit tour. You go through for a special immigration gate, hop on a bus, and get to see Seoul and thereabouts.

That’s the Greater Toronto Airport Authority for you! Her bag was probably labelled Shanghai-New York via Toronto (flights ABC and 123). When Flight 123 left without her, her luggage gets put aside, because it’s routing information is no longer correct (although obviously from the point of view of your sister, it is!). At Toronto-Pearson (and I suspect many airports, though I don’t know for sure) someone has to manually take these “stray” bags, sort through them, reassign them to a destination and get them on a plane to New York.

This isn’t really done on the fly, though I don’t know how often it gets done. It’s not likely to happen between the time of arrival of Flight ABC and the departure of your sister on Flight 789. The problem is that the planes to New York are full, both of passengers and luggage/cargo, so they have to wait for a plane that’s less full (difficult between those two cities!) or justify an entire pallet of wayward New York bound luggage to ship as cargo. Once that gets done, off goes her luggage, to her destination as promised! Note that no airline guarantees your bag will get there when you do!

It’s less expensive to comp a handful of people toothpaste, deodorant, underwear and a day’s worth of clothes than it is to forgo cargo on most flights, which is why airlines do it this way. I’ve also been told it’s not cost-effective to automate further, because on a percentage basis, these problems don’t really occur that often, and at the end of the day, it’s still largely a logistical problem of how heavy the next plane is. When I got stuck at Pearson due to a similar situation, I only left 2 flights later than the one I was supposed to be on (next evening rather than next morning). As it happens, my bag got to London before I did, on the morning flight (and was left largely unattended at Heathrow for 12+ hours!)

It’s an easy explanation that no passenger wants to hear: a plane on the ground makes no money. A plane in the air at 75% capacity makes enough revenue to justify the flight (commuter planes such as the Dash 8 break even at about 35% passenger capacity, IIRC, while larger planes might be in the 50-60% range). That revenue is more profitable than taking care of a couple dozen passengers for a few hours/overnight, especially since the lack of luggage from those passengers allows for money-making cargo.

It’s all about money.

Be surprised then. Not 20 minutes, but about 10. This happened to my brother last month. His flight was delayed in Boston, and when he made it to his connecting flight at JFK (same carrier) five minutes before departure, the door was closed and it was pulling out of the gate. His luggage did eventually make it to San Diego, but it was in limbo for a while, and it traveled without him. I suspect they figure that no one can plan this kind of thing, and therefore there is not the kind of security risk of not showing up to board a normal flight your luggage is on.

They did get him to a flight to LAX with a connecting flight to San Diego the next morning, but no compensation.

How could they get away with not compensating him?

Was the Boston delay a weather-related situation?

I would be raising Holy Hell over the early departure, not letting this slide, but then not everyone is as big of a cheapskate as I am…

(I imagine he had to get a last-minute room in NYC: Not cheap, not to mention the hassle of changing his various travel plans in California)

I don’t fly much and may fly even less after my last trip. Due to rain, my flight took off late and got into Chicago after all the flights to my destination had left. I had to stay over night in Chicago. What did the airline give me? They claimed a discount at a hotel for the night.