Strategies that can get you home during weather-delay roulette


Here are three reasons why a weather delay makes schedules @#%*!+$#


weather delaysA client emailed me in a cranky mood. His plane to San Francisco was stuck in a weather delay for two hours, and then was sitting on the tarmac in Newark for over an hour. He was a victim of weather-delay roulette.

Now, there are thunderstorms in the New York area, and Newark Airport seems to be subject to year-round weather delays. He hadn’t thought to contact me about a change, figuring there were no earlier flights. But as it turns out, he probably could have gotten home a lot earlier. Why? Because airlines do not operate on the “first scheduled, first out” rule.

I am not talking about flights to different cities or even flights where one aircraft has a mechanical delay. This concerns regularly scheduled flights. When flights leave every hour or so between cities, and a plane starts getting delayed with a weather delay, it may be time to think about later options.

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This seems counter-intuitive. Why would a delayed flight have to sit on the tarmac when an on-time flight gets to take off sooner?  There are many reasons. It helps to realize that in many bad weather situations Air Traffic Control may tell an airline they can only have X percent of their normal takeoffs and landings, but the airlines themselves get to choose which flights to prioritize.

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First, airlines have to post their on-time percentages for on-time flights.  Reports of on-time percentage are important in their marketing. In the reports 0 is 0 to 10 percent, 9 is 90-100 percent. But they only have to post if the plane arrives within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival. And it’s binary. So if they have two flights, and one is an hour late, and the other is close to on-time, there are advantages to at least keeping one flight on-time instead of having both of them reporting late.

Crew schedules factor into decisions

Second, pilots and crews have different schedules and maximum time on board with flights. If a crew for one flight is close to maxing out, then an airline will work hard to make sure they can complete the flight. No one likes it when a crew has to get off the aircraft and then everyone has to wait for the new crew to arrive, even if it’s one person.

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Third, airlines know exactly how many people on each flight are trying to make connections and to where. If one flight has a number of passengers connecting, say, to an international flight, or some full-fare business class passengers connecting anywhere… well, that flight, all things being equal, will get priority.

I have no clue which situation applied to my client today. Since San Francisco is a major international hub for United it wouldn’t shock me if the later flights had more passengers connecting to the South Pacific tonight.

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Of course, sometimes when flights are delayed they DO take off in order. So you’re best off staying put. Travel agents who book a lot of air often learn to read the signs. One of my favorite clients used to work for an airline. He and I treat take-off delays like a game of roulette sometimes.

Whether you work with an agent, or do it yourself, if your flight is delayed, a little active intervention and/or research into later options may end up saving a lot of time.

Featured photo by Tuce on Unsplash and Charles Leocha

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