When to Arrive at the Airport

The airport waiting game.

The airport waiting game.

As a former presidential campaign staffer, I spent a lot of time flying. Half of those trips began out at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport- the second busiest airport in the world. While the airport has lots of amenities, arriving at your gate in time for your flight often proves to be a challenge.

That’s why I was fascinated by a theory from Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematics professor and author of How Not To Be Wrong – The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. Ellenberg (fantastic name, by the way) claims that “if you’ve never missed a flight, you’re not doing it right.” He concludes that “if you consistently arrive at an airport three hours ahead of take-off, then it is true, you may never miss a flight. However, he claims that over the course of a lifetime you will also waste countless hours browsing duty-free shops and snoozing in airport lounges.”

Here’s more from The Daily Telegraph:

His research shows there is an optimal time to check-in that minimises wasted time but also keeps your chances of missing a flight down to one or two per cent.

Exactly what that time is, according to Ellenburg, “depends on how you personally feel about the relative merits of missing planes and wasting time”.

He continues: “If in the course of a lifetime you literally never miss a flight, then you may not have the best strategy.”

Clearly, Ellenberg sees things through a hyper-logical lens. And true, those who travel often usually have little time to thumb through a People Magazine or to grab a brew. But one thing for which Ellenberg does not account is anxiety. I cannot count the number of times I’ve sweated bullets while riding the “plane train” to the very last terminal at Hartsfield, hoping to make the only flight to Manchester, New Hampshire. If you have to fly, why make it unpleasant/panic-inducing?

Ellenberg also seems to think that missing a flight isn’t a big deal, and empirically, the risk is probably low. But a mathematician isn’t often quick to appreciate qualitative data, and most of the time, in life, it’s the kind that matters. Missing a flight could mean missing a friend’s wedding, a meeting with a prospective client or getting home in time to see your kid’s tee ball game.

So, if you’re like me and a lot less likely to live on the edge like Mr. Ellenberg, my recommendations are as follows:

  • INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL – Arrive 2.5 hours prior to flight, ensuring your checked bags are dropped off at least 2 hours in advance.
  • DOMESTIC TRAVEL, LARGE AIRPORT (e.g., ATL, DFW, LGA, DTW) – Arrive at least 1.5 hours prior to flight, ensuring your checked bags are dropped off at least an hour in advance.
  • DOMESTIC TRAVEL, MID-SIZED AIRPORT (e.g., MSY, OMA, ABQ, RDU)- Arrive at least 1 hour prior to flight, ensuring your checked bags are dropped off at least 45 minutes in advance (some airlines may require an hour).
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