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Airports throughout the UK practice the irritating habit of announcing gates right before boarding starts, and it annoys the bejeezus out of me. Though I’ve been to airports in Australia and Europe where gates are announced immediately before boarding, the UK is the only country where this practice is widespread. I’d like to know why, so I’ve done a bit of internet sleuthing to figure it out.
Why I dislike the practice
Stress is all about uncertainty, and uncertainty is stressful because it interrupts our ability to plan for the future. Not knowing your gate until 15 minutes before boarding is anxiety-provoking because it means passengers don’t know ahead of time how far they’ll have to walk to get to their gate and can’t plan meals or shopping accordingly. You can feel the stress most acutely within 50 feet of a flight board at any given British airport: everyone crowding around, eyes peeled for updates.
Admittedly, when everything goes smoothly, passengers know that their gates will be announced 15 minutes before boarding and know that the walk to the gate will be a maximum of 20 minutes, so there isn’t much uncertainty. When flights are delayed, however, passengers are left staring at flight boards for an indeterminate amount of time for fear that if they don’t continually monitor it, their gate will be announced and, by the time they notice, they won’t have time to get there.
Reason 1: Airports want to keep passengers in shopping areas
While all airports are interested in maximizing the amount of money their passengers spend, the incentivize is greater at British (and European airports, to a lesser extent) because a higher portion of their flights are international, which means that passengers tend to arrive at the airport earlier, giving them more time to shop. International flights also tend to have wealthier passengers, further incentivizing airports to keep passengers exposed to retail spaces.
Reason 2: Gates are assigned by airports, not airlines
In the UK, gates aren’t leased by airlines as they are in other countries but are rather assigned by the airport’s airside operations department. That makes cascading gate changes–one gate is changed so another is changed and so on–more likely because gate changes aren’t contained to a specific airline. Not announcing the gates until the last minute gives airports flexibility in making all those changes without catching passengers off guard.
US airlines, by contrast, lease gates at airports, so it’s the airline’s dispatch center that assigns gates rather than airside operations. Since dispatch centers only manage gate assignments for a portion of the airport’s overall traffic, there are fewer delays and cancellations and more certainty days, weeks, and even months ahead of time where flights will be arriving and departing. There are fewer cascading delays because gate changes are contained to an airline; for example, a Delta plane likely won’t need to switch gates because a Spirit flight landed late.
Ultimately, the fact that gates aren’t owned or leased by airlines in British airports is probably the least important reason I’ll discuss in this post; plenty of European airports use airside operations rather than airlines to assign gates, yet the practice of announcing gates at the last minute doesn’t seem to be nearly as widespread.
Reason 3: British airports are badly designed
Heathrow’s airport designers may have conceivably thought that concentrating seating areas rather than distributing them more evenly near gates across the terminal was a good idea because putting all the seating, restaurants, and shops in one place means passengers don’t have to walk as far to access them. In reality, not providing adequate seating and restaurants near boarding gates means they have to be announced right before boarding to avoid crowding in tiny gate areas.
Aberdeen Airport, for example, has several gates plopped down in the middle of a narrow corridor, without seats or a waiting area, that passengers use to get from one side of the terminal to another. Stansted is similarly designed–all seating and restaurants are located in one place, while virtually nothing, not even seating, is near boarding gates that are essentially in hallways. Bristol, Gatwick, and Manchester are all designed the same way. Obviously, airport authorities don’t want such important thoroughfares congested with passengers waiting for their flight to depart and are virtually forced to only announce gates at the last minute.
The practice of announcing gates last minute is annoying and stressful. It’s not a practice completely unique to British airports but is far more prevalent in the UK than in any other country I’ve been to. That’s mostly due to bad design choices and, to a lesser extent, gate assignments being managed by airside operations and not individual airlines. As much as I hope to see it change, it seems unlikely that the practice will stop anytime soon given that the design of British airports virtually ensures that it continues.