Why are so many flights delayed today?

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If you’re a frequent traveler, chances are you must have faced flight delay at least once in your life.

It’s not like the airlines don’t have a maintenance budget for planes or are short of pilots. The truth is that many times it is beyond anyone’s ability to do anything.

In this article, we look at the major reasons "why flights are delayed", and as U.S. citizens what you can do about them.

Major reasons

Airlines have broad categories for delayed flights. Usually, they prefer to keep it discreet and avoid giving details for the delay to customers.

There are several reasons why they do that.

For instance, if they tell flight passengers that the delay is because the pilot is late, it will irritate the passengers.

Which is why they mostly use the term ‘operational reasons.’

However, airlines are obligated to report it to the BTS (Bureau of Transport Statistics). You can check here, the reason for any delayed flight (domestic and international) since 2003.

There are five broad categories that the airlines officially categorize a delay;

  1. Air Carrier Delay: The reason of delay was in airline’s control.
  2. Security: Security issues such as when it is required to evacuate the airline or even the airport premises.
  3. Extreme Weather: Snow, thunderstorm, fog, high winds, etc.
  4. Late-arriving traffic: Due to the late arrival of the previous flight (same aircraft) the present one departs late.
  5. National Aviation System (NAS):Heavy air traffic, traffic control, airport operations, are monitored by the NAS, which can sometimes delay flights.

Interestingly, according to the BTS, most flight delays are caused by airlines while the least number of delays are due to poor weather conditions.

Take a look at these BTS stats;

Note: Delays due to maintenance might take up few hours, but weather-related delays can last up to days.

Non-Weather Related Delays

Usually when you try to find the reason of flight delay, you get vague responses like, “operational reasons” or “technical reasons.”

Some of these reasons are;

Air Traffic Control

On average 8 million passengers fly every day, that’s over 3 billion a year. And cities like London, Paris and New York have the most real air traffic. It shouldn’t be surprising if your flight gets canceled once in a while.

Flight delays are a given in such immense air traffic, especially for longer flights since these are subjected to stricter regulations.

Airport equipment such as radar is crucial for the movement of planes. Not all parts of the world have airport tech as of the US and Europe.

So sometimes to ensure safe landing and take off less wealthy airports take up more time than usual. And one delayed flight can cause a chain reaction of delayed or canceled flights.

An event like this falls under extraordinary circumstance. The airline is not responsible for such delays.

Technical Problems

It’s the most frequent reason for flight delays. However, try not to be too judgemental, as annoying as this excuse of ‘technical problems’ is, such a delay might even save your life.

Safety first!

If an airline is taking up time to double check the condition of the aircraft, more power to them. Because the alternative is dark and full of terrors.

Yes, we have much more advanced technology in the 21st century, but technical defects happen.

Forget airline companies, even NASA faces technical problems regularly.

Whenever there is such a technical issue, it needs to be rectified and adequately documented. Strict protocols need to be followed, which might take up time and cause delays.

Regardless, maintenance of planes needs to be efficient. The airline is responsible for it.

(Interestingly, Southwest Airlines had classified mechanical errors as an 'Act of God' in their contract of carriage, ridding them of related liabilities. But, when this news became public the airline had to clarify that mechanical difficulties referred to problems regarding air traffic control, which are beyond the airline’s control.)

Resting the Flight Crew

Airlines follow protocols which ensure that their crew gets plenty of rest before each flight. This is crucial for everyone’s safety.

Naturally, sometimes the crew is short, and some members fill in for others. After back-to-back flights, the airline might need to rest them to save them from exhaustion.

Remember, the margin for error is extremely small in aviation operations.

Delays by Passengers

When you hear the airport announcer calling someone’s name for the fifth time, the airport staff hates it as much as you do but they have to follow protocol.

Sometimes, the luggage has been checked in, but its owner is missing. That’s a liability on the airport, to find the owner or unload the luggage. The airport staff is actually trying to help this person.

Talk about help, sometimes passengers face medical emergencies, which can create serious problems for everyone involved. The crew has to handle such situations which can cause flight delays.

Summer flight delays

The general perception is that snowy winters are the main culprit of weather-related flight delays. But the reality is that there are more flight delays in summers than in winters.

There are more Google searches for “Why is my flight delayed?” in Summers than in any other season.

Let’s see why that’s the case;

  1. Hot air makes lift-off difficult: Hot air is less dense, which makes the wind under the wings sparse. The result is that the plane needs more runway space to achieve the lift-off speed. And clearing the runway for extra space can cause delays.
  2. Rain and Thunder: June, and July are the peak months for flight delays. Rain and thunderstorms during these months a.k.a ‘convective weather’ stretches flight duration. While flying, when the pilots approach such a weather patch they try to go over it. But during summers, these turbulent pockets are way up in the sky, making it difficult to fly over these, so they go around it, which extends flight duration.
  3. Holidays! Of course: More people travel around in summers, which means more passengers, longer boarding time and longer unloading of luggage. In short, the plane takes longer to take-off.

Winter flight delays

Mention flight delay to someone due to extreme weather, and pictures of hail, snow, and fog immediately come to mind.

Although less frequent than summer-related delays they do happen because of;

  1. Airline Snow: Airport runway is considered contaminated when there’s standing water, snow, ice or slush, which needs to be cleared before landing or takeoff. Otherwise the plane - while landing or taking off - could lose traction which leads to aquaplaning/hydroplaning.

    A small snowstorm without any accumulation is generally not an issue. But if an airport does not typically deal with clearing snow, then even a mild storm can cause delays. Also, thunderstorms and blizzards can cause visibility problems. Irrespective of airport’s preparation a delay is usually imminent.

  2. High Wind: Even when it’s not snowing high winds can cause visibility problems for pilots. Crosswinds during flights are generally not a problem but landing and take off are riskier; airlines might have to cancel or delay flights if snow is drifting or blowing.

    High winds usually don’t cause delays, but if there is ice on the tarmac, these winds can be dangerous, which may cause tarmac delays. And lastly, the strong winter winds called ‘bomb cyclone’ are powerful enough to cause extreme turbulence, which causes flight delays.

  3. Aircraft Icing: Ice can form on the plane which can create mechanical problems. Smaller planes are prone to such problems. Ice formed on the wings and windshield of airplanes is a serious problem and needs to be addressed, hence the flight delays.

What should you do when your flight is delayed?

The majority of air travelers are unaware that they have certain "airline passenger rights" and privileges, they can use when such mishap occurs.

In an apples-to-apples comparison between E.U. and U.S., EU air passengers have more privileges.

For instance, if a flight is delayed in Europe for more than three hours, the passengers are entitled to compensation.

If the same happens to a domestic flight in the US, you cannot claim compensation. However, if the delay is unusually long, you might ask the airline for free meals or even a hotel stay if there’s an overnight delay.

But bear in mind that the law does not obligate them to do so. They are required however, to update the flight status within 30 minutes (or sooner) after becoming aware of the delay.

Refund is a Grey Area in the U.S.

What if your flight is significantly delayed?

According to the U.S. DOT (Department of Transportation), you might be eligible for a refund including all paid fees such as baggage fees or seat upgrades if the delay is unusually long.

However, DOT has not defined ‘significant delay.’ DOT determines if a request is eligible for a full refund on the case-by-case basis, after checking the duration of delay, circumstances of the passenger, etc.

European Privilege for U.S. Air Passengers

There are certain conditions when the U.S. passengers can claim compensation for an international flight.

  1. Your flight should have been delayed for more than three hours.
  2. You should have departed from an EU airport, or you must have traveled with an EU regulated airline to an EU airport.
  3. Flight should not have been delayed due to any reasons beyond the airline’s control.

For example, if your flight is delayed for more than three hours due to airline’s fault while flying from New York (or anywhere in the world) to Paris (or any EU airport), with Lufthansa (or an EU regulated airline), you are eligible for compensation of up to 600€ (i.e., about $700), the same way as European passengers do.

To claim airline delay compensation, you may reach out directly to the airlines’ customer service, or to the travel company you booked your ticket with, or to any claim company (probably for a fee).

Before asking for compensation check the amount, that you can claim.

Search in Google for ‘Flight Delay Compensation Calculator,’ click any one result. Enter your flight no. and flight date, and within 2 to 3 minutes you can find your compensation amount to claim.

Happy flying!

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