What are the Most Common Airport Delays? We Asked the Pilot

There aren’t many passengers who enjoy hanging out at the airport longer than two hours unless you’re among that elite status of business traveler who utilizes the cushy airline club lounges. All in all, most of us just want to be on our way to our destinations in an efficient, safe and timely manner. Sometimes we find ourselves in a position where we may have less than forty five minutes between connecting flights, so any type of delay can put an entire itinerary in jeopardy, potentially ruining that Cancun vacation or important business meeting.It’s an unfortunate part of the traveling lifestyle, but from time to time Murphy’s Law can strike at any moment in the form of a delay.  For whatever reasons, they can happen to the best of us. Some are clearly obvious, such as a nasty thunderstorm. However, many delays may not be weather related at all.


Lets Fly Cheaper.com wanted to know more about airport delays from someone who understands the components and causes of delays, so we went to an airline pilot who currently flies with a major U.S airline. He has ten years of flying both small 70 passenger regional aircraft and larger 150 passenger aircraft in and out of nearly every major airport in the U.S, Mexico and Canada.


1.       What is the most common delay you deal with? What is the most common maintenance delay?

The most common delay is Weather and Air Traffic Control Delays.  The Air Traffic Control System in the United States was built in the 1950s and 1960s using technology from that time period.  The system is overloaded for what it was originally designed for.  There are plans to upgrade the system called Next Generation Air Transportation System  but there are still problems with the funding of this upgrade.  So you already have an antiquated system and if you throw in some weather, it tips the balance and can lead to massive delays in high density airspace. Regarding maintenance, it is rare to have the same thing break on a plane over and over again.  The most common maintenance delay is a general one. Many aircraft have many computer systems and on occasion they break.  An Airbus or Boeing has hundreds of computers on board and when one breaks and there is no back up to that system, it needs to be replaced before the plane departs.


2.       Which types of weather patterns are the most concerning for pilots?

While each weather phenomena has its challenges, the summer thunderstorm season is most challenging.  It can be very safely handled, but there are delays and reroutes that slow down the operation and usually lead to delays for the passengers.  There are times though that if a massive Thunderstorm is over the field you are departing from, between your departure airport and destination airport, you just have to sit it out on the ground and wait for the storm to pass.  Add the fact you usually have a lot more leisure travelers and flights are fuller, it strains the operational integrity of many airlines.


3.       We always hear pilots say they will fly fast to make up for the time they were delayed. Is there any truth to that?

Airlines have a tool that they use called the ‘Cost Index Number’ that determines how fast an aircraft or particular flight should fly.  The Cost Index Number is based on a few items including fuel, labor, and operational cost.  If we are running on time we rarely fly as fast as the plane can from point A to B because, if we did we would burn additional fuel and there is a very good possibility that once we landed, we would be waiting for a gate.  However, if we are running late, we can bump the Cost Index Number higher, fly faster, and try to make up time.


4.       What cities in the U.S would you say has the most delays?

New York LaGuardia, New York JFK, and Newark


5.       Who makes the decision to delay the airplane?

The ultimate decision authority for a particular flight is the Pilot in Command which is the captain of every flight.  But if we are going from say A to B and B is experiencing delays, Air Traffic Control advises us on our wheels up time and that affects the delay.  Or if we are waiting for connecting passengers, our dispatcher may tell us to hold the flight so there are no misconnects.  Or an aircraft may need a maintenance inspection done right away.  Delays are not black and white scenarios many of the time.  The bottom line is if you NEED to be someplace at an EXACT time, give yourself plenty of time to get there.


So what can you do as a travel to avoid delays? Unfortunately, there really isn’t a simple answer or one particular tip that will alleviate the potential for these common delays. Weather, as we know, is a part of nature, which is impossible to control. Avoiding trips during the seasons with the most aggressive weather isn’t really the answer, as most of the worst weather happens during those heavily traveled summer months. Travelers may have the option to avoid those airport infamous for air traffic related delays such as JFK, Newark and Atlanta. However, many travelers rely on those airports for connecting flights. All in all, it’s important to understand that flying is a complicated business that requires detailed preparations, strict regulations and intense safety precautions. The airlines cant control everything, but they can control passenger safety.