When it comes to getting to the airport, err on the side of caution because the odds are never in your favor

Traffic is bumper to bumper on the departure deck as travelers do the holiday shuffle at Los Angeles International Airport.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Question: I was flying out of San Luis Obispo on Sept. 16 on United. The flight was scheduled to leave at 9:35 a.m. I arrived at the airport at 8:45 a.m. There was no one at the United counter to check me in. Because there was no kiosk, I walked over to security to ask how I could check in. I was told that I was too late. I looked around and noticed the airplane had not boarded and everyone was sitting around the gate. I saw a United employee on the other side of the security line and tried to get her attention, but she ignored me. I then tried to check-in online, and I was not able to. I again tried to get the United employee’s attention. After some difficulty, she told me I did not get to the airport on time and I was not going to be able to get on the flight and walked away. I was not checking a bag, and there was not one person waiting in any line. I couldn’t believe I had paid more than $350 for such terrible customer service. I ended up renting a car and driving to San Diego.

Ciani Sparks

San Diego

Answer: Let’s start with the good news: United made a “one-time exception” and has ordered a refund for Sparks’ ticket.


But the story is timely as holiday travel approaches. You’ll find a lot of tips about holiday travel on Page L4 of this week’s section, and chief among them is to allow yourself plenty of time.

That’s true not only at the holidays but any time because anything can trip you up. (If you’re flying out of LAX you can change “anything” to “pretty much everything.”)

Could be a ride-share driver who gets lost on the way to the airport. (Happened to me.)

Could be a line so long to check a bag that the airline is doing triage by checking in elite-level fliers first, which you are not. (Happened to me, a non-elite flier.)


Could be a random swab that turns up what the Transportation Security Administration thinks is traces of explosives, and you spend the next 45 minutes doing a pas de deux with the TSA agent. (Happened to me. It probably was fertilizer on my athletic shoes picked up from the nursery and botanical gardens I had visited during that trip.)

But I have never missed an originating flight because I am obsessively early. I would rather spend time in sight of my gate where I can check email, download something on Netflix or read the latest Louise Penny murder mystery than spend my time remaking reservations or trying to reason with an airline agent.

Besides my irrational fear, here’s my rational one: Rule 5, Letter D of United’s contract of carriage (or its equivalent on any other carrier).

United’s says this: “UA has the right to cancel reservations [whether or not confirmed], deny boarding and/or refuse the acceptance of checked baggage of any passenger who fails to present himself/herself within the applicable check-in or loading gate time limits for passengers and/or baggage.”


If you’re not checking a bag on your domestic flight, you must have your boarding pass at least 30 minutes before departure except if you’re flying out of Baltimore or San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Not sure why those two cities but wouldn’t have guessed that.) If you have baggage, you must check in sooner than that at a whole list of airports, which include LAX and Orange County.

And you must be at the gate 15 minutes before a domestic departure. That means if you’ve cut it really close and you’re doing that little ballet with the TSA, you’re in trouble.

Further, Letter E says, “Passenger and baggage processing times may differ from airport to airport. It is the passenger’s responsibility to arrive at the airport with enough time to complete any ticketing, check-in, baggage and security screening process and boarding requirements within these minimum time limits.”

And finally, it says, “UA is not liable for any consequential compensatory or other damages when it cancels reservations [whether or not confirmed] of any passenger in accordance with this rule … .”


In other words, fliers, you can argue the case, you can plead ride-share witlessness, airline triage, stringent security or whatever other misfortune befalls you, but the airline is the one that’s protected, not you.

Besides, do you really want to spend time figuring out which airports are the exceptions? Why know that? It’s probably never going to be a question on “Jeopardy,” so what’s the use of that information cluttering up your head’s hard drive?

I’m not saying it’s not a good idea to have some familiarity with these contract of carriage rules. But you’re stuck unless you can prove you followed them to the letter. Because, as Ian Gregor of the Federal Aviation Administration told me in an email, when to close the airline door is up to the airline. It’s not the FAA’s call, and it’s certainly not the passengers’.

Sparks got a refund, but she still had to rent a car and drive to San Diego and was out that money. And the time she spent in the car? No refund on that.


If you’re going to err this holiday season, make it on the side of caution because time is rarely on your side.

Have a travel dilemma or question? Write to We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.