These days it may feel like a miracle if your flight arrives on time, but the truth is flights have always been subject to delays—whether they're caused by stormy weather, mechanical problems, or something else entirely. When one airport experiences delays, it can cause a ripple effect across the entire country within minutes. You've experienced the ripple effect if you've been told that weather delays in Orlando are holding up your flight from Las Vegas, where the skies are sunny.
But it's not your imagination if you suspect the delays have gotten worse in recent years. Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, attributes "overscheduling [at the] busiest airports" to increased delays. Church explains that "at New York (JFK), the airlines have scheduled more than 50 flights to depart in one hour's time on weekday mornings. Yet the airport can only safely depart 45 aircraft when the weather's good. The resulting overflow of delayed aircraft spills into the next hour, and the next, and so on."
Throw in pilots reaching their maximum work-hour limits, and other crew and employee shortage problems ... and you have the summer of 2007. There is no flexibility left in the system, either the airlines' operations, or the busy airports."
Lisa Wright, a captain for Delta Connection carrier Big Sky Airline, says "from my perspective, weather is primarily the cause for delays. The next most frequent cause would be [equipment breaking], and the next would be crew availability and scheduling issues."
What are your rights if your flight is delayed?
The Aviation Consumer Protection Division of the Department of Transportation (DOT) explains that because airlines don't guarantee their schedules, passengers don't have many—if any—rights when delayed. The federal government does not require airlines to compensate passengers affected by a delayed flight. If your flight is cancelled, however, most airlines will re-route you on another flight.
Instead of simply praying for an on-time arrival or departure, practice the following defensive measures before you travel to help ensure you aren't negatively affected by air-travel delays:
- Avoid delay-prone flights: Airlines publish on-time averages for their flights. Before you book, make sure you're on a flight that has a decent chance of arriving on time.
- Know your airline: Certain airlines (ahem, Northwest) are known for labor disruptions and major incidents of flight cancellations and delays. Save yourself the hassle and fly another carrier whenever possible. The DOT publishes a monthly Air Travel Consumer Report with statistics of delayed and cancelled flights. Try to avoid the worst offenders.
- Book a nonstop: If your flight goes directly from City A to City B, you won't get stuck in a connecting city along the way. Remember that a direct flight is not nonstop.
- Fly mornings: Whenever possible, book the first flight of the day. Delays tend to worsen throughout the day, so if you're first in the air, you'll be able to avoid many delays.
- Leave enough time for connections: When booking, assume that your departing flight will leave late and plan your connection time accordingly. Schedule at least one hour for a connection—particularly important if your itinerary calls for stops in Atlanta, Chicago (O'Hare), Los Angeles, or any of the New York area airports. Give yourself even more time if you have to change airlines or go through security again.
- Use small airports: Avoid airline hubs whenever possible. "Secondary" airports are usually less congested and less prone to delays.
- Know the rules: Familiarize yourself with your airline's rules for identification, baggage limitations, and check-in and gate times. If you're late checking in or showing up at the departure gate, you may miss your flight. Late passengers are also the first to be involuntarily bumped. Having to gate-check your too-large carry-on can cause delays as well.
- Be early: Arrive at the airport with plenty of time to park, check in, and pass through security. You can find average TSA wait times for every airport in the country before you leave for the airport.