The commercial airline industry (or as I like to call it, the world's collective punching bag) is not an easy business to be in especially when it comes to flight delays. According to most recent data, over 44,000 flights are handled by the FAA domestically each day. With over 16.1 million flights handled by them yearly. That’s a lot of take off and landings. Many of these flights are delayed or in some cases canceled altogether, for a number of reasons. Flight cancellations and airport delays are rare in the big scheme of things. Here are a few of the major factors that cause flight delays or cancellations. They are presented in no particular order.
Weather / Extreme Weather
The airlines don’t like their planes flying in bad weather. There are essentially two kinds of adverse weather. Whether that slows air travel and weather that cancels air travel. They, like you, don’t like weather-related incidents such as diverting to alternate landing airports. When your flight IS delayed or canceled due to bad weather, I say have a party. I know it sucks...but rejoice the airline has decided to value your life over profit and stayed on the ground until the weather improves...which it always does. Keep in mind that it's not just about the weather at your departure airport. It’s also about the weather en route and the weather in the destination in which you are expecting to land.
What appears to be bad news because it has delayed your departure, is actually good! I love it when an airline discovers a problem with its equipment (the plane) before it leaves the ground. A mechanical problem, once detected can usually be resolved quickly. A repair can be made, and you can be on your way. If a mechanical problem is discovered in the air, then a plane usually lands without incident but most-likely at an airport NOT on your itinerary. Yes, you may not like being in an unscheduled place for a period of time, but it’s better than the alternative.
A ground delay is a decision made by the arrival airport. This is usually caused by spacing issues. Weather, runway or airfield conditions can cause a ground delay or “stop”. Delays can also be due to an evacuated airport or other terrorism/police/fire/emergency activity. These instances are rare, but they do happen.
Crew issues are another reason planes are delayed. Flight crews have strict regulations on how much time they can spend flying.
This is one of the biggies. Sometimes your flight can be delayed because the plane is delayed arriving at your departure airport. This is the ripple effect of other delays that may affect you. When this happens, passengers have to deplane, the plane interior has to be cleaned and then boarding for your flight can commence and in some cases causing a delay.
You / Other Passengers / Checked Luggage and Cargo
Occasionally a plane will wait for a large group of passengers to arrive from another inbound flight. They won’t wait long, but they do wait at the airlines discretion. Checked luggage being moved from one aircraft to another can also cause a delay and the same can be said for cargo.
This is an excellent article from the US Department of Transportation detailing flight delays.
These are my thoughts based on decades of flying commercially, so take them for what they are worth. But I assure you, I want your commercial flying experience to be as pleasant as possible. More specific information and videos about US carriers and international carriers that fly in and out of the US can be found on the Travel U pages. Have a fantastic flight!
If you have airline delay thoughts or questions, then please leave them in the comments below.
About The Author
Erik Hastings, a.k.a. Erik the Travel Guy is an EMMY award-winning television personality who speaks directly to consumers who can't afford to "get their vacations wrong". He is the host and managing editor of the internationally syndicated television series "Beyond Your Backyard" for public broadcasting stations (PBS) and other networks/VOD platforms. Erik leads an incredibly talented team of industry pros and is the editorial driving force of his platform. While the travel industry directly supports millions of families worldwide, Erik believes travel makes the world a better place. Through exploration and discovery, he has learned that travel brings cultures together and he eagerly shares that spirit with his viewers.
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TV Series: Beyond Your Backyard
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I am on a mission to get you traveling more often. As the host of the Emmy award- winning, nationally syndicated television television for PBS and the Create channel, "Beyond Your Backyard," I travel (on average) 25 weeks per year. I am very grateful for the opportunity to meet cool people, experience new places, eat delicious food and work with the best production crew in the world. Hopefully, through this blog, you will join me on my travels and be reminded just how exciting it is to be alive!