Behind the scenes — DOT statistics make delays longer

Gate wait, why late flights get later

airline flight delayWe’ve all been there. A delayed flight finally lands and you cannot wait to get off the plane. But then the aircraft sits on the tarmac. And sits. And sits. And the final delay until you get to the gate can end up adding another half hour, or more, to the experience. It happens to my clients, it happens to me. Sometimes, it is an unintended consequence of DOT’s flight delay rule.

Last weekend I was on a flight delayed almost three hours from Hawaii to San Francisco. The pilot told us he would fly as fast as possible, and actually did make up some time, landing just over 2 hours late. But 30 minutes sitting on the tarmac at SFO, without explanation, ate up most of the saved time.

Sometimes pilots explain the delay; other times, as with my most recent flight, they don’t. It can be a number of reasons: traffic, lack of staff or, most often in my experience, a gate issue, whether it’s a plane at the gate they want to use, or a plane in the way of allowing ours to reach its gate. Sometimes, passengers never really know. But the DOT flight delay rule always hovers over all airline scheduling personnel.

In some cases, a plane can’t get to the gate because it’s arrived early, and while annoying, it does seem reasonable that airlines can’t have another flight leave early to accommodate the incoming plane. However, most frustrating of all, it often seems as if a flight is more likely to sit on the ground if it’s already late. And for that, while airlines don’t divulge the reason, it seems likely that the 15-minute DOT flight delay rule is at least partly to blame.

Let me explain the DOT flight delay rule. When you or your travel agents look at flight availability, there is a number at the end, from 0-9, and that represents how often the plane was on time in the previous month. Zero means from zero to 10 percent, nine means from ninety to 100 percent. But whether a particular flight gets that on-time “point” is binary. Did it make it to the gate within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival? A plane that is 16 minutes late is treated no differently than a plane that is 16 hours late. Literally.

Click here to subscribeNow, when a plane is really, really late, airlines may offer compensation, depending on the route, the reason for the delay, and yes, the status of the passenger. But it doesn’t make it any worse in the availability display. So if it’s a busy time at the airport, there’s little incentive for an airline to prioritize the already delayed flight in favor of one that is still on-time. (And yes, there are connection issues that come into play, too, but with a really delayed flight, many passengers often have been rebooked, or already missed their connections.)

Is there anything travelers can do about this, short of complaining after the fact?  Not really, though I do recommend polite complaint letters, which might get you some compensation. I recommend that anyone being picked up should not call or text the person doing the pickup until you are at the gate, as it can result in a lot of wait time.

Also, if there’s a choice between a delayed flight and an on-time flight ending up at about the same time, if seat assignments are equivalent or close, try to get on the on-time flight, as the airlines seem to prioritize those. (Plus, it also seems that once one thing goes wrong with a flight, issues can snowball.)

And finally, once a delayed plane lands, passengers can use cell phones. So, make sure they are charged. At least you can start working on that complaint letter.