Fly early, or be late.

Fly early, or be late. Here’s why.

First, consider aircraft and crew access. On the first few flights of the day, both the aircraft and crew are beginning their first flight of the day. That’s important to you, because it means they most likely spent the night at the airport. So when you get there, they’re already at the gate, not coming in from a distant location, subject to arrival delays due to weather.

Some important advantages you gain early in the day:

1. If on the last flight the aircraft had any mechanical discrepancies reported, mechanics have had all night to perform any required maintenance.

2. The crew, too, is fresh: their FAA mandated maximum day is just starting. No problems with crew legalities.

3. The crew is together–not the cabin crew coming in from one coast, the flight deck crew from the other. They’re all starting from this particular airport.

4. The maintenance shift has just begun, plenty of time for mechanics to complete any work before shift change. More about that later.

5. Less gate delays: the aircraft is likely ON the gate, not waiting for the gate to become available, thereby delaying their deplaning, your boarding, and the swap of cargo and baggage.

Delays due to crew manning, maintenance requirements, and gate availability are much less likely EARLY IN THE DAY.

Next, think about passenger loads, because they do affect you. Here’s a chart of planned departure times and passenger loads from Denver to Chicago on one air carrier:

Passenger Loads Denver to O’Hare 2-27-10

Flight Departs Arrives Passengers Capacity
1 0700 0914 65 148
2 0755 1008 71 148
3 0845 1100 110 148
4 0955 1215 127 148
5 1100 1300 165 172
6 1135 1345 138 148
7 1210 1430 142 148
8 1255 1520 144 148
9 1340 1605 255 237
10 1450 1720 150 148
11 1535 1755 181 178
12 1650 1917 155 148
13 1800 2005 135 148
14 1900 2110 142 148
15 1950 2205 128 148
16 2055 2305 101 148
17 2130 2350 65 148

Note that before noon, the flights aren’t quite booked full, but after noon, several are overbooked. Why?

If you’re early, particularly in a mid-continent hub like Denver, DFW or Chicago, no one has been able to fly in yet to connect: the east coast flights haven’t landed yet, and the west coast, hours behind, haven’t even begun to board and dispatch. Which means less competition for seats with standby upgrades or overbooking.

But you’re not standby, you say, right? You will be if there’s a cancellation, especially of your flight. But look at the above chart–your best bet to snag another seat is in the morning. By the afternoon, a bow wave of standby passengers will have those flights packed to the gills.

Once the connecting flights from either coast or commuter connections from outlying areas add their passengers into the hub airport passenger pool, it’s a whole different ballgame. If arrival at your destination is time critical, or if you have a down-line connection the odds are more in your favor early in the day. Later, as the day goes on and delays, cancellations and stand-by lists begin to snowball, not so much.

Here are two other crucial factors that can be largely sidestepped early in the day.

1. Weather.

Sure, there are storms in the morning sometimes. But not the ones that result from the day’s heating and convection of moisture. But even if there is bad weather in the morning, if your aircraft is on its first flight of the day, at least it’s there–and so is your crew. Later in the day, your inbound jet could have to divert because of weather, tossing you into the standby line, or inducing a large delay. Crews, too, start running up against the FAA duty limits due to diversions. Don’t gripe–the FAA limits are for your protection as well as mine: you really want me on duty more than 14 hours for your landing?

2. Maintenance shift change. Why is this important? Simple: because an FAA-certified mechanic is performing licensed procedures on any aircraft. His signature goes on the paperwork certifying the maintenance action. It’s just not workable for one mechanic to do part of the procedure, then have another finish and sign for the entire job. So, if the first flights are at 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning, add eight hours and see when lengthy maintenance actions will probably not be started because they can’t be finished within the shift and so are likely to wait for the next shift. Which means you will wait, too. And I know what you’re thinking, but no–there’s no money for mechanics’ overtime in the sea of red ink flowing from the airline industry. The job will be done right, but you’ll likely wait.

Finally, I recommend you board early. That’s because of human nature: nobody’s going to do as they’re told and put one of their hand-carried items under their seat, then maybe one in the overhead storage bin. If you board last, it’s likely to be you standing in the aisle with a bag but no place to put it.

Other passengers will avoid eye contact with you, acting as if they DIDN’T already hog all the overhead storage space–but they did. And your bag is going to have to be gate-checked, whether you want it to or not. Choose a seat near the mid-point of the cabin if you can, which means the middle boarding call:

I like those emergency exits over the wing. Not only is there more leg room,  it’s also the smoothest ride  because the center of gravity and thus the pivot point of the jet in both pitch and roll are there. No, you won’t see much on the ground because the wing is in the way, but  you also won’t be the last group called to board, and thus be stuck with nowhere to stow your hand-carried items. You also won’t have to wait for the entire aircraft to deplane before you can get off–you’ll be in the middle of the pack.

Okay, got all that? Here’s a summary: early, early, early; booking, boarding, flying. You’ll have a smoother flight with less opportunity for delays.

Good luck, and by the way, don’t look for me at the airport when you get there early: I’m not an early morning person. Since the plane won’t leave without me, I’ll take my chances later.

Lake Tahoe


Sure, it’s always funny till someone loses an eye.



8 Responses to “Fly early, or be late.”

  1. Dennis Magnusson Says:

    Great advice. I always fly early but you really explained all the reasons. loved the last paragraph.

  2. I’m a late night/early morning person & much prefer flying in the morning for all the reasons you listed!

  3. Napalm in the Morning Says:

    Flying in the AM always seemed like a luxury to me. The start of a new day so-to-speak for a host of good reasons. Many of which you have outlined. Plus, the first flights out were the “weather ships” for the rest of the fleet. It gave us the opportunity to interact a bit more with the dispatchers and flight support people.

    Thanks for the post. You nailed it and I miss it.

  4. Tom Seagraves Says:

    Great post, and educational too. Not only that, but the Secret Stuff video was hilarious!

  5. This blog is awesome…insightful, educational, and honest. Though I’ve flown a lot over the years, and often on long international flights, the older I’ve become the more nervous a flyer I have become as well. Reading these entries has definitely helped quell some of my anxiety, and given me some good pointers, too!

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