“Ladies and Gentlemen waiting to board United Flight 646 to Houston, I’d like to inform you of a gate change. Your plane will no longer board here at Gate C2 but will now be boarding at Gate C98. Boarding will begin in roughly 5 minutes. Thank you for flying United and have a pleasant flight.”
Gate changes can be a pain. If they’re just a couple of gates away it’s not a big deal but sometimes I feel like I’ve walked halfway to my destination by the time I get from my original gate to my new one – and sometimes you really do only have 5 or 10 minutes to get from Point A to Point B.
Ever wonder why they change gates in the first place? Here are a few reasons why it happens:
The airline usually leases specific airport space (it’s part of how airports make their money), which results in airlines “owning” whichever gates in whatever terminal (that’s why all of Delta’s planes will be in this terminal, all of Southwest’s planes will be in that terminal, and Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant share the “North” terminal that’s further away because it’s cheaper) and they can generally do with them as they please.
However some airports also keep their own gates. They’re designated as “common use” and can be used by any airline if and when they’re available.
The airport is usually not the one that assigns gates; the airline’s dispatcher is. The dispatch center determines which plane goes where. It’s based on plane size, availability, and where the plane is coming from. The latter is more important when it’s an international flight, since those have to go to the international terminal in order to go through immigration, etc.
Anyway, here are some examples of the types of things that happen.
Say that you’re due to get on that 737 to Houston at Gate C2. The 737 has landed but a bird hit the plane during landing and now the plane has to get inspected before it can fly again. They have to get another plane, pronto. There happens to be one available (you totally lucked out!) but it can’t go to Gate C2 because the “old” plane is still there. It’s a busy part of the day and other planes are already assigned to be at most of the other gates. Well, C27 was open but the 737 is too big for that space. So C98 it’ll have to be.
There’s a huge snowstorm in Chicago. Delta flight 442 was supposed to depart out of Gate B27 an hour ago but is delayed because of weather. Meanwhile, Delta flight 64, arriving from Los Angeles, is scheduled to land at Gate B27 now, but it can’t because flight 442 is still there. So flight 64 gets changed to arrive at (and later depart from) Gate B16 instead.
Because of a huge thunderstorm over Jacksonville, American flight 124 is two hours late. It can’t go to its originally planned Gate A16 because another plane, which was on time, is there now. Actually, all of Americans’ gates are taken. So flight 124 is told to go to Gate E7, which is a common-use gate. It means everyone is going to have to change terminals, which is a total pain, but what can ya do?
It’s almost like playing Tetris – figuring out where all the planes will go, taking into account where they’ll fit well, especially when you weren’t expecting “that piece” (read: circumstance) to happen. Airline dispatchers have software to help them know what gates are available, which are full and which will be taken as soon as that plane on the horizon lands. That must make things a whole lot easier!
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Here’s another reason. The airline wants your plane!
True story. Way back, I used take a United 5pm flight nonstop from O’Hare to Westchester County NY airport. We boarded as usual, but about 15 minutes before departure time, they tell us there’s a mechanical problem and had us deplane. While waiting in the boarding area, they informed us that they were putting us on a different plane at a far away gate. So we get up and move out. Half way to the new gate, I realize I left my coat on the chair in the original waiting area. When I arrive at the original gate, I see them loading the plane. I go up ask the gate agent and she says this is a full flight to the Midwest (don’t remember the exact city); that continues on from there. Unofficially she told me they needed a plane for this packed flight. Great. So I grab my coat and head to the new gate. Guess which plane is there; yep that Midwest city flight. Had to wait almost 3 hours for the repairs to be completed before we took off. While waiting, the gate agents let everybody know that we would be fed on the plane, free drinks, and extra mileage credit (gave us forms to fill out). You guessed it, no meals (weren’t loaded due to late hour), finally free drinks after a bunch of rowdies were very vocal (way before cell phones) and, no extra mileage credit. This was the final straw for me with United. It became the airline of last resort.