Travelers everywhere live in fear of flight delays. A flight delay can not only send you scrambling to make a tight connection, but it can also derail your entire travel plan. But, as with an overbooked flight, there are a few ways you can predict a delayed flight — and a few things you can do to increase your chances of reaching your destination on schedule.
Read on to learn how you can minimize your chances of flight delays. And don’t miss our secret for figuring out that your flight will be delayed before the gate agent even turns on the microphone to announce it.
You can avoid flight delays — at least some of the time
Sometimes, it’s impossible to avoid a flight delay. As CNN reports, “With weather, mechanical issues, airspace congestion and even things like crew scheduling getting in the way, running on time 80% of the time is good.” (If only your boss felt the same way about your arrival at the beginning of your shift!) You can’t ever guarantee that your flight will be on time. Nonetheless, CNN reports that you can lessen your chances of being delayed.
The easiest way? Book a flight that departs in the morning. Airlines perform maintenance and other tasks overnight. So morning flights “have a higher likelihood of going on time,” according to CNN. By the time afternoon hits, delays and problems may pile up. And interestingly enough, severe weather is more likely to pose a problem in the afternoon during thunderstorm season.
Historical data can help you when you book your ticket
CNN also advises taking a look at the historical data on the on-time performance for the flight you want to book. That can help you pick up on trends, and avoid an unnecessary flight delay. “U.S. airlines are now required to show you on time performance when you’re booking a flight, and that can show some interesting trends,” the network explains.
Flights only a couple of hours apart could have drastically different rates of on-time departures. Searching FlightStats.com for the historical performance of each flight you’re considering can help you avoid a flight delay. But as CNN notes, “past trends aren’t a guarantee. Anything can delay your flight on any given day.”
Often, flying between 6 and 7 in the morning is best
A few years ago, FiveThirtyEight crunched the numbers on your likelihood of encountering a flight delay. The results? “The best time to fly is between 6 and 7 in the morning. Flights scheduled to depart in that window arrived just 8.6 minutes late on average. Flights leaving before 6, or between 7 and 8, are nearly as good.” But what happens if you just can’t drag yourself out of bed to get to the airport early enough for a pre-sunrise flight? “Delay times build from there,” FiveThirtyEight warns.
“Through the rest of the morning and the afternoon, for every hour later you depart you can expect an extra minute of delays,” the publication adds. The exact math has probably changed a little bit. But FiveThirtyEight found that late-arriving aircraft account for most of the difference in the timing of flight delays. “Ever have one of those days when you’re 10 minutes late to your first appointment and never make up the time? Airplanes are the same way,” the publication explains. “Early in the morning, almost all of them are in position from the previous evening. But there isn’t much slack. Once they’re late, their schedule may be off for the rest of the day.”
Choosing the right airport can also help you avoid a flight delay
CNN also advises choosing your airport carefully, especially when you really need to avoid a flight delay. Some airports, like Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia, typically rank “toward the bottom of the pack in terms of on time performance.” The same could be true of one or more of the airports in your area.
If you can realistically choose among two or more airports, it never hurts to look up the record of each airport. And think about the weather issues that could cause problems during the time of the year you need to travel. “When the weather goes south, airlines have to look at canceling and delaying some flights to thin out the schedule. The flights from smaller towns tend to get impacted more, while international flights have priority. That’s another thing to keep in mind.”
You can predict a flight delay before the airline announces it
Travel + Leisure reports that airlines often hesitate to announce a flight delay. In fact, they seem to wait until the last minute to inform passengers. But you can easily tell that your flight will be delayed before the gate agent makes the announcements. To do so, you just need to use a website such as FlightAware.com.
By entering your flight information on FlightAware, or another tool like it, you can track the inbound aircraft. (Just look for the button that says, “Where is my plane now?”) You can see if it’s already arrived at your gate. And you can also find out if it’s still en route, and behind schedule. As Travel + Leisure reports, “the website should still make it clear whether or not your flight is going to leave at the ticketed time.”
Airlines offer a few options in the event of a delay
The worst part of a flight delay often isn’t the change in your arrival time. Instead, most people hate the time they lose just waiting around at the airport, or on the tarmac. Money reports that you don’t have a lot of options if you get stuck waiting on the plane. But if you haven’t boarded yet, you may have some choices.
When you face a significant flight delay — often defined as more than two hours late — airlines will often let you fly standby on another flight. They may even rebook you (with a confirmed seat) on a flight that departs within 24 hours. If you haven’t gone to the airport yet, you may also have the option of canceling your trip and getting a refund. And if you decide to wait out the flight delay, you may get free food, or a free room at a nearby hotel. Just remember to speak politely to the gate agent or customer service representative. That always helps your chances!
Your pilot may be able to make up for a flight delay
You may have heard a gate agent say that the pilot can make up for a flight delay as you’re finally boarding a plane that arrived 30 minutes late. FiveThirtyEight investigated whether that claim really proves true. Surprisingly enough, it does! At least in very specific circumstances. On-time flights from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX), Boston (BOS) to Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK) to San Francisco (SFO), and the reverse routes had an average flight time of about 344 minutes. If pilots can make up for a flight delay in the air, the average flight time should be shorter for delayed departures. And that’s exactly what the data shows.
When a flight is delayed by less than 30 minutes, it consistently takes between 340 and 350 minutes to travel between the East and West Coasts. But when the delay is longer — between 35 and 50 minutes — the flight time between coasts drops. Then, it only takes 320 to 330 minutes. The flight time reverts back toward six hours when the delay exceeds 50 minutes.
So if your plane takes off 35 to 50 minutes after its scheduled departure, your pilot really can press the accelerator and make up about 20 minutes of that time in the air. But a flight delay longer than 50 minutes? You probably shouldn’t expect the pilot to try to get there faster, since there’s little chance of reaching your destination as scheduled.
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