Air Travel Delays: My Top 3 Cause Factors


Look, I get it: I sit in both ends of the jet for some very long delays. My last two turnarounds were planned for 7 hours but turned into 8.5 and 9.1 respectively. That made my pilot duty day, with preflight and ground turnaround time, over 12 hours.

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Me deadheading in the very last row of coach, carefully not man-spreading and conceding the armrest to the middle seat passenger (basic air travel etiquette, BTW)

We waited over an hour for takeoff, then had additional holding in the air before landing at Philadelphia International Airport.

I’d deadheaded up to Philly to fly the jet back to DFW Airport but the result of the Air Traffic Control delays getting the jet off the ground in DFW and enroute to Philadelphia made our Philly-DFW flight well over an hour late into DFW.

That caused many passenger misconnects once we arrived at DFW after yet another round of airborne holding for nearly an hour. My flight plan from Philadelphia to DFW called for a flight time of 3:27 but with holding, the actual flight time became 4:30.

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That’s due to storms moving through the north Texas area faster and more southerly than predicted, constricting air traffic routes into DFW. So, we were delayed by ATC for an hour holding over a fix southeast of the airport after an enroute course refile to avoid weather.

I ain’t complaining, but I got home at 2am instead of 11pm. That’s my job and I did it correctly and safely for all 167 folks on board.

But that’s not the big picture. What’s driving ever-increasing air travel delays? Here’s my Top 3 Factors.

  1. Increased traffic volume. According to the DOT Bureau of Aircraft Statistics, airline departures have increased 5-7% annually since 2010. That means more aircraft crammed into exactly the same airspace, which means traffic flow abatement is ever-more necessary and unfortunately, more present: ground stops abound; inflight holding is often unavoidable even after enduring a ground stop.
  2. Weather predictive delays: the National Weather Service provides more and better predictive weather products that the FAA Air Traffic Control Center (ARTC) attempts to integrate into their traffic management constraints. In theory, this is a good thing but in practice, I question the effectiveness: air traffic is often preemptively ground-stopped or re-routed based on weather predictions, which aren’t always accurate (see above), meanwhile, air traffic then must be re-routed from the ARTC re-routes.
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The storms often do not conform to the FAA predicted movement, causing yet another layer of reroutes and delays.

3. Airline “banking” (the grouping of inbound-outbound flight exchanges at hub airports) cannot handle the disruption of hours-long delays: when one complex or “bank” of flights is delayed outbound, there’s nowhere to park and deplane the next complex. This leads to individual airline-imposed ground stops: your flight will not be pushed off from your origin airport gate until there’s a reasonable expectation of gate availability at your arrival hub. This is to avoid the old “sitting on a tarmac with toilets overflowing waiting for a gate” urban legends that engendered the Passenger Bill of Rights.

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Given the ubiquitous eye of cellphone video and social media, passengers can count on more origin airport outbound delays: major carriers will always defer to the Passenger Bill of Rights, allowing you to deplane at will at the departure station rather than sit on board at your destination, trapped for hours waiting for a gate at a weather-affected hub while ranting on social media.

There are other factors creating and lengthening delays, like an industry-wide shortage of qualified airline pilots and airline planners who over-optimistically schedule aircraft, crews and connections.

But from a pilot viewpoint, the big three above seem to be what I most frequently encounter. So, in addition to packing your own food and water in your carry-ons, be sure to arrive at your departure airport with a plentiful supply of patience. This summer, you’ll need it it more than ever.

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5 Responses to “Air Travel Delays: My Top 3 Cause Factors”

  1. […] via Air Travel Delays: My Top 3 Cause Factors — The JetHead Blog […]

  2. Mr. Cook Says:

    I agree with your Top Three causes of delay. Better OPS planning might mitigate some individual events, yet others are beyond anyone’s control. From my own Frequent Flyer (SLC) days, as a forth item I’d include mechanical delays associated with inbound aircraft. An early problem can screw up the aircraft’s schedule for an entire day. As hardware and MX have improved, I perceive a reduction in this kind of delay, but they do still happen.
    I’m only guessing here, but unplanned delays (airborne holding time), as evidenced by adding a full hour to your example, seem nearly impossible to control and are likely most often weather related. The costs associated with those delays e.g. fuel and crew costs, must the astronomical. It is a cost of doing business, but *someone* still has to pay for it. (I’ve often wondered what dollar figure the majors use for calculating the direct costs for each hour of unnecessary flight for the B738 that you fly, and other common types. Those are closely held numbers and not publically discussed, but it is still real money.
    Great post, Dr. Chris. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for these interesting insights into the complexities of airline operations. The wife and I just completed a round trip from Missouri to Maine with two stops en route each way. We returned on June 30, so the skies were stormy and the airports were packed, and yet we were mostly on-time and, most importantly, safe.

    There was one potential problem on our final leg when there was a significant glitch in seat assignments, one I never experienced before. There were duplicate seat numbers assigned. The crew finally threw up their hands and told everyone to just find a seat and ignore the numbers. Amazingly, it worked.

    I have often marveled at the effective discipline and teamwork involved in modern air travel. Given its complexity and weather variability, this essentially violent business has established a marvelous safety record. If hospitals were as well run, it would be a revolution!

    Thanks for your professionalism and have a happy and safe Fourth!

  4. Airline Banking strikes me as one of those things that would work if we had infinite runway, taxiway and ground handling capacity, as well as perfect weather.

    Unfortunately, in the real world, everything has a finite capacity – if you don’t plan to spread the load on that capacity throughout the day, it seems to have a way of spreading out for you.

    I’d much rather spend an extra half our on a connection and avoid the banking-related delays.

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