From bad weather to equipment failure, there are a million little things that can and do go wrong when people fly. Every passenger will, at some point in their travels, experience a delayed or canceled flight. Unfortunately, what you should do in these moments is not always so clear.
While there’s not much you can do to change the weather, there are steps you can take to mitigate the inconvenience and minimize your chances of flight delays before you’ve even booked your trip. Below is an explanation of why flights are delayed, as well as actionable advice to help you prevent and cope with delays.
Why Are Flights Delayed?
When an airline reports a delay, it is placed in one of five categories created by the Air Carrier On-Time Reporting Advisory Committee, which, yes, is very much a thing.
Extreme Weather: According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, weather woes made up around 38 percent of all delays in 2018. That includes snowstorms, hurricanes, and any other meteorological condition that prevents the carrier from making the flight.
National Aviation System: America’s crumbling infrastructure system has become a key talking point for both political parties, and that includes neglected airports and an outdated air traffic control network. These conditions make it difficult to manage the growing volume of flights and result in delays.
Security Concerns: If your flight has ever been delayed during a government shutdown, it was most likely flagged as a security-related issue. These types of delays are a result of snags in airport security operations such as broken screening equipment, security breaches, or excessively long wait times.
Late-Arriving Aircraft: This is an all-too-familiar scenario for most flyers. Your departure time has come and gone, but you’re still waiting around the gate for your plane to arrive from its previous city.
Air Carrier: This means the delay was entirely within the control of the airline, sometimes referred to in the contract of carriage as “irregular operations.” Mechanical issues and crew problems would fall under this category. Unlike force majeure events, irregular operations put airlines on the hook, which is why they aren’t always so forthcoming with the reason for these types of delays.
Check On-Time Performance
First things first, check the on-time performance stats for your flight before booking. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation allows you to search historical data by flight number, as well as compare by airline or even by airport. Sites like FlightAware and FlightStats also provide flight data, though not quite as thorough. If a flight you’re considering has a history of delays or cancellations, you might want to consider an alternative.
Choose an Early Flight
No one likes schlepping to the airport before sunrise, but being on the first flight of the day has its perks. Early flights won’t yet be affected by delays that ripple through the route system as the day progresses, meaning they are more likely to take off on time. Not only are these early-bird flights typically on schedule, but, because of their unpopular departure times, they are often among the cheapest fares. You’ll be on time and a few bucks richer.
Book a Nonstop Flight
There’s a reason nonstop flights are sometimes more expensive than connecting flights; they could save you significant hassle. If you’re struggling to justify splurging on a nonstop, think of it as reducing your chances for delay by half.
If nonstop flights aren’t available, or that cheap connecting fare is just too low to resist, at least choose your connection city wisely. When flying in the middle of winter, you’ll probably encounter fewer weather-related delays in warmer hub cities like Phoenix, Houston, or Atlanta. In summer, some airports have better on-time ratings than others, so take that into account when selecting your route.
Be Proactive at the Gate
If boarding hasn’t started and your flight is scheduled to depart in 10 minutes, it’s safe to assume something is amiss. Gate agents aren’t always the quickest to announce a delay and it’s possible your plane hasn’t even arrived from whichever city it’s coming from. If you don’t see a plane waiting at your gate, you can check its current whereabouts by searching for the flight number on FlightAware.com to get a sense of how much longer you’ll be waiting until it arrives.
In the immediate moments after a cancellation or serious delay has been announced, resist the urge to join the angry mob at the gate counter. By the time you reach the front of the line, all the available seats on the next flight might have already been snatched up. Instead, dial the airline’s customer service department as you make your way to a less frenzied general ticketing counter elsewhere in the terminal.
When you do finally speak with an agent, in person or on the phone, be polite. No matter how inconvenienced or angry you may be, yelling at an airline rep isn’t likely to improve your situation.
Know Your Rights in Case of Mechanical Issues
In cases where the delay or cancellation is caused by “irregular operations” such as a mechanical problem, some airlines will rebook you on the next available flight, even if it happens to be on a competing airline. Not all airlines will do this, and even the ones that do might hesitate to offer until prodded by you. To find out exactly what your airline’s policies are on delays and cancellations, study up on its contract of carriage. All fine print and legalese, it’s certainly not the most exciting read but it can be useful when things go wrong.
Before you fly, have a copy of your airline’s contract of carriage at the ready, printed or on your smartphone, should you need to refer to it.
In the chaotic aftermath of a cancellation, it’s entirely possible that your frazzled airline rep may not be aware of each and every alternative itinerary to get you to your destination. Research other possible routes in advance and be prepared to offer up other flights that work for you.
Know Your Rights When Flights Are Delayed or Canceled Due to Weather
When a particularly nasty storm causes thousands of flights to be delayed or canceled, the airlines are in a mad scramble to reschedule and accommodate passengers in whatever way they can. If weather conditions appear just as iffy in your connecting city, ask to be rerouted through a different one.
The rules will vary by airline, but refer back to your airline’s contract of carriage for details on what exactly they’re willing to do for you in the event of excessive delays and cancellations. Some may provide meal or hotel vouchers. Again, they don’t always offer, so you may have to ask.
Most airlines waive change fees during major weather events, so you can reschedule even before you get to the airport if things look bad. If you’re not thrilled with the rebooking options presented to you, you may also request a refund, even if your original ticket was nonrefundable.
More from SmarterTravel:
- Hate Turbulence? Here’s How to Know When It Could Strike
- What Happens If I Miss My Connecting Flight?
- 9 Things You Should Never Buy at the Airport
Tracy Stewart is a content editor at Airfarewatchdog, SmarterTravel’s sister site. His travel advice has been featured in outlets including the Washington Post, Consumer Reports, and Frommer’s.