Are all delays created equal, even if an airline lies about it?

© InSapphoWeTrust

For many airline travelers, a delay is a delay, and it doesn’t matter what the cause.

Others only care if the delay is compensated or not. In general, airlines are more likely to compensate if they say the delay is something within their control, as opposed to weather or air traffic.

My biggest question in dealing with delays is simply, “Is the airline being honest?”

Most airline travelers will never know the real reason for a flight delay. Most frequent travelers have at least a few stories of being within earshot of airline personnel and hearing about things like paperwork snafus, pilots who overslept, forgetting to cater the plane, etc.

Sometimes, however, the story just doesn’t make sense.

An 8 p.m. United flight from Newark to San Francisco was departing on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Its on-time record last month was no better than a 50 percent. Still, everything appeared fine until about an hour prior to departure, when the airline announced a 30-minute delay.

United Airlines announced, “Late arriving aircraft,” as the reason.

I did some quick checking and found that the inbound flight, from Antigua (in the Caribbean) to Newark, was indeed running about 10 minutes late.

That explains 10 minutes, but 30? A few minutes later, United changed the delay to 55 minutes, while the arriving flight was showing only 15 minutes late.

After doing the math, this didn’t make sense. A plane arriving at 7:15 p.m. shouldn’t require an hour-and-45-minute turnaround. The complication, according to United, was that an international flight, even from the Caribbean, would have customs delays.

Fair enough. But, in that case, if the plane needed that much time between arrival and departure, there was no way it should have been scheduled to depart Newark at 8 p.m. if it was only scheduled to arrive at 6:56 p.m.

This means one of two things — Either United had created a schedule they had no reasonable intention of following, or United had used the plane intended for the Newark to San Francisco leg for another flight and gave us the later arriving plane.

In any case, the flight left at 9 p.m. and arrived at 12:40 a.m., almost an hour late, with no further explanation.

If United had swapped planes, that wouldn’t be uncommon. Whether airlines admit it or not, some flights have more priority than others, for reasons of load factors, revenue generated, crew issues, overseas connections, etc. When an airline has several of the same aircraft type, it’s relatively easy to swap such aircraft. The passengers who end up delayed when their plane gets borrowed are the ones who suffer.

No one claims scheduling aircraft is easy. In San Francisco, a lot of so-called “weather” delays are actually a combination of weather and limited take-off and landing “slots.” Air Traffic Control might limit an airline’s total flights in or out, and the airline decides which of its flights to prioritize and which to delay.

(When it’s weather, as a rule of thumb, longer flights, especially transcontinental or international, usually get priority. So passengers from San Francisco to JFK or Europe might be fine, and anyone going to Los Angeles or Vegas might wish they had driven. In fact, even with that hour-long delay from Newark, we were still better off than many travelers on short flights that Sunday.)

It’s quite possible that the real reason for my flight’s delay was a good one. Or, it was simple scheduling incompetence. But, we’ll never know.

So what do you think, Consumer Traveler readers? Does knowing the reason for a delay matter to you? Or do you only care about honesty in the length of the delay? (There is another whole post!) Or, while we’re asking questions — at what point should an airline give some compensation to passengers?

  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately this country does not have EC261. So compensation for delays is up to the airlines themselves. Cannot even rely on the old Rule 240. So only reason to lie is to avoid paying on their own committments.

  • AKFlyer

    Yes, I think airlines owe it to their customers to be honest, especially when delays are chronic, as seem to be the case for this flight. Publishing a flight schedule that is essentially impossible for the airline to adhere to is nothing less than fraud. It’s intentional and it dupes customers out of money they should be spending elsewhere.

    BTW, FlightAware lets you view individual aircraft by tail number (“N” numbers in the US). You can see if an airline is occasionally or habitually swapping equipment on a given connecting flight with the same flight number. In my experience, this is not uncommon on flights arriving in the US from a foreign point of origin. Airlines make money by keeping their equipment in the air as many hours/day as possible, so while everyone is going through customs and immigration, the arriving aircraft is taken to a domestic gate to get airborne again ASAP.

    The airline nonetheless has an obligation to plan ahead so that it has equipment ready (fully maintained with a legal flight crew) for any scheduled departure.

  • Anonymous

    Question: Does flightaware tell you the tail number of the aircraft that was SCHEDULED or just the one that actually flew?

  • AKFlyer

    If, as Janice writes in the article, the aircraft scheduled is the one coming in to EWR from Antigua, then yes. You can see the inbound tail # and compare it to the aircraft that actually went to SFO under the same flight #.

  • baasbaas1

    And more often than not, a tardy crew member, one who overslept.
    On a flight to go from Atlanta to Germany, needed to “replace a piece of equipment in the cockpit…..simple enough, should not take long. Oh oh, don’t have the right size Allen Wrench. Have to locate one and get it here.” Made it in time so flight was not scrubbed, but it was touch and go.

  • arwilypig

    Once I was in Boston and all flights arriving were cancelled for over 8 hours (daytime), and naturally most outbound flights requiring those planes were also cancelled. When asked, the airlines blamed the weather. There was an overcast at about 2,000 feet but that was all. The “weather” delay was really due to the loss of all runway lights. The reasoning was that if the weather was clear with unlimited ceiling, planes could have landed without runway lights (I cannot image any pilot wanting to land even in good weather without runway lights). It was the eeriest thing to look out across the entire airport and see absolutely no aircraft as everything on the ground was allowed to takeoff but nothing was landing. This was a Friday and you can imagine what the poor airline employees were having to deal with (lines were long and totally unmanageable). You can surmise why the airlines blamed the weather and not equipment failure at the airport.