Topic of the Week: Alaska Airlines Increases Its Minimum Check-In Time

Alaska Airlines

Alaska has decided to increase its minimum check-in time from 30 to 40 minutes in most airports. (Some more challenging airports are still at 45 minutes.) They say they’re doing it for consistency’s sake, but then why not standardize at 45 minutes? Anyway, this is just for check-in and you can do that on your phone, the internet, etc. So is it a big deal? Do you think this will have some kind of impact on you as a traveler?

27 comments on “Topic of the Week: Alaska Airlines Increases Its Minimum Check-In Time

  1. I think the impact will be felt most by travellers at Horizon airports – the Pasco’s, Walla Walla’s and Salem’s of the network. You’ll need more than 40 minutes from SEA or PDX to go from line-up to TSA to gate, but at the smaller airports, it might be 5 minutes. I know there was some business-types moderately peeved when Air Canada raised check-in to 45 minutes at all airports (the story I read was from Charlottetown PEI)… For me it isn’t a big deal – I am usually checked in 24 hours in advance, and through security an hour before departure. Time for a coffee and a bit of spotting…

    1. Horizon hasn’t served Salem since 1994. But your overall point is totally valid. I recall fondly rolling up to the Walla Walla airport (which had free (!) parking) shortly before departure and making the flight no problem.

    2. I agree. I fly out of Wenatchee fairly regularly, and the thirty minute checkin deadline there is totally fine. There are three staffers which do everything, including check-in and handling of the inbound flight, but the inbound flight arrives 20-25 minutes before scheduled departure of the outbound. This will just leave them twiddling their thumbs 20 minutes longer.

  2. Its a tough choice.

    If its too tight, people miss their flights or the airline makes a customer service decision to hold the plane, resulting in late flights. Even in smaller stations, you have to train your customers to show up early. So even making an exception will get them to come earlier next time.

    The trouble becomes when a lot of customers show up at 35 minutes (for instance) and they could make the flight, but they cant use their phone or kiosks to check in. Then the ticket counter has a harder time getting people through on-time.

  3. Frontier Airlines has had a 45 minute cut-off for as long as I have been flying them (like 7 years, haven’t in a few), something you need for their DEN hub (an airport I believe all airlines require 45 minutes for). I still remember the time the city bus I was taking to LGA was running late and got stuck in traffic on the Triborough and I didn’t arrive until 35 minutes before departure. I was very happy I’d check in on line and had no bags. I went up to security where there was no line and still had about 10 minutes to sit around the gate and wait for boarding to be called.

    Just noticed Delta still requires 60 minutes to check in at JFK for domestic flights, I wonder if that will ever change?

  4. I think this only impacts those who are checking a bag. Alaska wants that extra time to get the bags to and loaded on the planeIf you haven’t checked in online 40-45min prior to the flight then shame on you.

  5. This is really a non-issue. Frequent travelers probably check in online, and this doesn’t affect them. Once/twice a year travelers are probably not aware of the policy or that it has changed, and will look online to see how soon they need to be at the airport. It creates consistency among the majority of the airports, and show they are aware that some airports (ATL, DEN, etc) may need more time, and allows for exceptions for them, without disrupting the majority of the airports which can comfortably handle a 40 minute check in time.

  6. Not everyone can check in online. It’s easy enough going out, but not always possible on the return, for example that time I was staying in a cabin with no internet or cell phone reception, and was only able to connect on the way to the airport.

    I understand that an airline may need to enforce a cutoff for operational reasons (for example if the same agents work the counter and the gate), and that normally people should plan to show up early. But people are sometimes late through no fault of their own, and enforcing a longer cutoff than what’s operationally needed is just plain unfriendly. I’d expect it from Ryanair, not Alaska (a colleague of mine once lost the full value of their Ryanair ticket for checking in 2 minutes past the cutoff.)

    I think the key is enforcement. If I show up to check in 35 minutes before my flight, will Alaska still try to get me on the plane? They say their policy is to offer a same-day seat on the next available flight for $25. I can accept a $25 fine for showing up late, but they should try to get the passenger on the original flight if that’s feasible.

    1. In my experience Alaska has been quite flexible. One time around the holidays I completely messed up and arrived at the airport about 5 minutes before my plane was supposed to depart. Luckily I was going to the San Francisco area so I switched from OAK to SJC or something like that.

  7. Pure ‘check in’ isn’t a big deal given the current world of online/mobile check in.

    The bigger issue is the ever increasing shift of burden to customers. All airlines keep increasing these board times, at-gate times (note that Alaska is also requiring boarding ready (at the gate?) 30 minutes before flight, etc. Go look at official policy at many airlines on when they suggest arriving at airports. They seriously suggest arriving 2 hours before for domestic and 3 for international! Yes, reality isn’t that, but because that’s policy, they are saying “we don’t care about PAX time”. Assuring that they were adequately staffed to check-in, collect bags, board everyone in the last 40 min to hour before scheduled flights requires more staff so they make the burden and risk the customer’s.

    1. Airlines probably recommend the 2/3 hour cut off because the people who are paying attention to that are probably inexperienced fliers and a) need the extra time. b) might not be giving themselves enough buffer to get to the airport and take care of parking/returning the rental car/etc. The experienced fliers know what to do.

  8. Isn’t travel just getting more stressful every day what with trying to comply with this or that. Minimum times for this and that. Add-on fees for this and that. No actual tickets, just boarding passes that you may have gotten 24 hours earlier, but now you’re a minute late, so it’s meaningless and with lots of small print and asterisks indicating please know, etc. And, sorry, we don’t accept cash, for anything, and if you try to transact your business here, we’ll have to charge you an additional $25. Soon, just trying to talk with someone will cost an arm and a leg.

    I feel for the poor flight attendants who daily have to herd us into the plane and try to calm us down.

    In fairness, I never worry about getting to my destination worrying that the plane’s wing might fall off or we’ll collide with some other plane or our plane will have a real difficult time trying to clear that mountain over the horizon. I did worry about those things a number of years ago.

    It would be nice if all that was needed was a statement to the effect that passengers should get to the airport and check-in so we, the airline can make sure we can process your bags and see that your flight will leave on time. And we, the passengers will do our best to see that the airline can handle us well.

  9. It is important to remember that this is published policy, not practice.

    I once worked at a telephone company/internet provider and in the training class when we went through the terms and conditions the trainer said that he was going to teach us the terms and conditions and when to break them.

    T&Cs exist to give employees somewhere to stand when saying no to a customer. Is Alaska going to prevent people from checking in at 39 minutes? Hopefully not. If I were designing this from a customer service perspective I’d publish 40 minutes and enforce 30 minutes. But when someone arrives to the airport 20 minutes before their flight the employee can say, I’m sorry I can’t get you on this flight.

    Companies expect some flexibility with policies, even to the point that unions use strictly following the policy as a negotiating tactic, a.k.a. they “work-to-rule”

    1. I haven’t missed a check-in deadline on Alaska/Horizon, but on at least AA and UA (once each), I’ve missed it by one minute (after standing in line for 10+) and the computer wouldn’t let the agent check me in. Instead, they processed me as a stand by, insisting that there was no way I had time to make the flight (but I would have been fine 1 minute earlier, somehow). I made the flight anyway in both cases. If Alaska’s computers are similar, agent discretion doesn’t matter.

      At the very least, if they publish 40 minutes but enforce 30 minutes, they’re potentially just creating extra work for their staff, especially at Horizon outstations (see comment above).

    2. Nick, to your point, airlines and most service providers need to have service standards that benefit the customer and the company with the ability to make judgment calls outside the policy. I would argue that outside the United States, service agents do not have that much flexibility. At least, they don’t have the same level of flexibility found in America. The argument for/against employee ownership and empowerment can go both ways, but culturally, there is little leeway and customers have been conditioned to not expect it.
      One airline I have worked with closes the flight at precisely 30 minutes before departure from a remote location with no room for flexibility by check-in staff. This is by design and the airline has a fantastic on-time performance record (at least in the controllable statistics).

  10. The cynic in me says that by artificially increasing the minimum check-in time, you are increasing the number of people who miss the deadline, and thus increasing your revenue from same-day confirmed flight change fees. Alaska is a reasonably customer-friendly airline, so I don’t think they’d be taking this page out of the Ryanair playbook, but stranger things have happened….

  11. or… they are trying to close up the lobby so that they need less employees to do more work.

    This is the Alaska that fired 472 rampers in SEA because Menzies was cheaper… I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this so that the ticket counter employees could run to the back to stack bags, then the gate to meet the inbound, load the outbound, and then marshall it out.

  12. I don’t understand why airlines need a minimum check-in time. If you make it to the gate on time, what exactly is the issue?

    I can understand a policy saying that if you don’t check in by a certain time, you risk losing your seat to a standby passenger. However, assuming the flight isn’t oversold, minimum check-in time just seems to be an excuse to levy additional charges.

    1. Jim,
      You sort of answered your own question, partly. Airlines require that time in order to process passengers, both stand-by (revenue and non-revenue) and confirmed oversold passengers without seats. It’s not fair to tell someone who checked in on time that they won’t get a seat, but the guy who rocks up at 30 seconds before departure does.
      Also, below the wing, it physically takes time to process load manifests, which include passengers, baggage, fuel, cargo, etc. This paperwork has to be validated by the flight crew.

    2. They have the MCT for good reason. Your bag doesn’t go from the belt in the front to the plane in one fell swoop. It goes from the front, to screening (god knows how long this takes somedays), to another belt,to a sorter unit, out to the plane, and then onto the plane.

      In other words, simpler is better. Having a policy that says “You can check in 15 minutes prior if your using the app, 20 minutes if you have to use a kiosk but you might lose your seat if you’re not at the gate 14 prior (then what’s the difference?)… oh, and if you’re checking a bag, you have to do that at least 30 minutes prior, and if your international it has to be 1h prior.”

      Adding to the complexity, you’re going to have people rolling up 16 minutes prior and finding out security takes 25. Then they are screaming at us employees because TSA was understaffed and “Why would you let us check-in so late if it was impossible to make anyway???”

      So, apply the KISS principle. Cut-off is 30 minutes prior for domestic, 1 hour international.

  13. The check-in cut off time or flight close time depends on many unique and even airlines specific factors, including most that are out of the control of the airline itself. As a process-focused consultant, I think the additional time for flight closure would be needed in some cases where the airline does not have sufficient and EFFICIENT processes in place to avoid costing the customer that sometimes precious extra time. Things that airlines can do to improve a customer’s experience and allow check-in closer to departure would be more availability of web/kiosk check in and even more efficient load management tools.
    Again, though the airline is under pressure to meet on-time expectations from many directions, customers tend to view an increased minimum check-in time as an airline cop out. And in some cases, they’re right.

  14. Do NOT fly Frontier Airlines! A Frontier Airlines ticketing agent turned five people away who were checking in 45 minutes before their flight. Frontier Airlines only had one ticketing agent on duty and she went on break in anger after turning people away. The five of us were waiting at the Frontier check-in counter without an agent present, after she was rude saying that there is no way that we can make the flight. I actually made it to the flight while the doors were still open, but they wouldn’t let me in because I was not the one person that they were waiting for, who never showed up. The Frontier agent then called TSA security on me for no reason and TSA called the local police. Once TSA heard my story, they eventually apologized to me. Frontier never apologized and they want me to pay multiple fees to change my flight.

  15. I went investigating this policy this morning after my fiance and I, along with 15 other customers, were turned down at the 40 minute cut-off. This was at the Pullman-Moscow airport, where there is only one flight at a time. We all stood patiently, waiting in vain, thinking that we would be checked in. Rightfully so, because the plane sat not 50 yds away with a half hour to go before departure, and we could see the alaska employees standing around doing nothing. Why wouldn’t we be checked in? It didn’t make sense that we wouldn’t. Once we realized they weren’t going to help us because of a policy, we all got pretty pissed off. Half of us didn’t have baggage to check, only needing a simple check-in. I couldn’t believe the lack of compassion and work ethic. It took a lot not to insult them as they re-routed our flights. I couldn’t work there. Telling someone that they are not allowed on the plane because it would establish a precedent (and that really was the only reason in this case) does not pass the red face test.

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