Airline delays are full of gray areas
One of the most aggravating airline delays is when a traveler gets a notice from their airline or finds out online that a flight is seriously delayed. However, that delay notification is always followed by the disclaimer saying something like, “Please be at the boarding area for the regularly scheduled time, as this may change.”
So, what should a traveler do?
No one wants to miss their plane. As a travel agent, I’ve had more than one client miss a delayed flight. Most commonly, it is not from arriving at the airport late, but from wandering off for a meal or something and missing a boarding call when the plane was rescheduled closer to the original time.
While there are no guarantees, there are some tricks that might help a traveler make a decision about airline delays. It all hinges on the reason for the delay. Is it Air Traffic Control? A late arriving flight? Perhaps, a mechanical issue? Or, a crew problem?
Air Traffic Control (ATC) is one of the most changeable reasons for airline delays.
Sometimes, ATC holds up flights due to weather or congestion. If things clear up, the airline will try to get the flight out earlier. In other cases, an airline will suddenly get a slot and need to board and depart quickly.
I avoided a three-hour delay with runway issues at San Francisco when United Airlines suddenly got permission for a flight to leave in a half-hour. Originally, it was announced as delayed for an hour. I rushed to the gate and, along with others, was able to board. My good fortune was in part because some confirmed passengers on the flight didn’t see the sudden change.
When an ATC problem is the weather, delay prediction is tough. In those cases, travelers might have to use their best guess if the weather changes. The problem with weather might be at the origination airport, or the destination, or somewhere in between. In general, my experience once a weather delay is announced is that things don’t improve. But I do see it happen, for example, when thunderstorms pass through quickly.
It is hard to make up time for a late-arriving flight
If, for example, a flight is scheduled at 3 p.m. and the arriving flight isn’t getting in until 5 p.m., 6 p.m. or 5:45 p.m. seems about the earliest an airline can achieve for the following departure. An international flight needs more time.
This last airline delay is especially true if passengers are flying from a smaller airport, where there just aren’t spare planes sitting around, or an airport where a carrier doesn’t have a lot of flights. Even at larger airports, it’s difficult for airlines to find another aircraft. But, it DOES happen. So, it’s important to keep an eye on the schedule. I’ve had airlines swap equipment to get a flight out closer to on time, which then may delay another flight.
For a mechanical delay, ask an expert.
Passengers need to find out from a phone or gate agent the specific issue for the delay. (Airport agents tend to be the experts, but if a traveler is not at the airport yet, that isn’t an option.) Often the airline delay can get worse, but sometimes problems get solved more quickly than expected. Sometimes, it’s a very specific reason that means the delay is probably as advertised. This may be the case when waiting for a spare part. In one case at New Orleans, we found out United was having a spare tire flown in from Houston. Sure enough, the tire arrived. We saw it being rolled across the tarmac. And, the tire change took about 10 minutes.
Crew availability or crew rest airline delays are common
Flight crews, especially pilots, need a certain amount of rest time between flights. If a flight gets in late the night before, even though the pilots may be at an airport hotel, they cannot depart until they have had that prescribed downtime. In other cases, a crew may be flying in on another flight. In both situations, the delay is unlikely to be resolved. In the case of crew rest, however, often planes may leave exactly as predicted once the delay is announced because the crew is there and ready or reserves can staff the flight.
If travelers end up at the airport far in advance of when a flight actually is going to depart, one other option is to inquire about an earlier flight that has not left yet. Airlines tend to prioritize their most frequent travelers for this kind of change, but it never hurts to ask.
Now, if all of this seems rather “inside baseball,” it is. This is why travelers might still want to use an experienced travel agent to book even a simple flight.