Don’t Get Stranded: How to Watch for Flight Delays and Get Around Them

Air travel has usually required flexibility in the face of scheduling adversity before you may enjoy the sublime experience of soaring above the clouds to visit friends and family. But this summer it’s often felt more like a game where all the cheat codes stopped working.

Through May, the latest period available, the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS)(Opens in a new window) reported that almost 23% of flights were delayed (defined as arriving at the gate at least 15 minutes behind schedule), well above May 2021’s figure of about 14%. Nearly 2% of flights were canceled, four times more than a year ago.

So if you plan on traveling, the status update you dread most may not be some relative’s unhinged political rant on Facebook, but your airline’s notification that your flight showed up in red on the departure board. You can’t do much to prevent flight interruptions , but you can prepare for them—and set yourself up to route around them.


Why Are Flights Being Delayed and Canceled?

(Credit: Bureau of Transportation Statistics)

BTS data show that in May 2022, “Air Carrier Delay” accounted for 7.81% of flights delayed, followed by “Aircraft Arriving Late” at 6.93% (with most of those late arrivals(Opens in a new window) themselves due to “Air Carrier Delay”), and then “National Aviation System Delay” (issues with air traffic control that in turn resulted from bad weather almost half the time(Opens in a new window))(Opens in a new window)at 5.09%.

What’s up with airlines?(Opens in a new window) earlier in the pandemic expecting demand to return slower than it has, then have had to deal with the same high workforce competition and COVID absentees as other large employers.

“Airlines have both overscheduled and oversold flights for this summer relative to the realities of their operational capacity,” emailed Tiffany Funk, executive director of the One Mile At A Time(Opens in a new window) travel blog and co-founder of the Point.Me reward-travel search service.

And neither is likely to get better, even after airlines have trimmed schedules(Opens in a new window) and dropped all services to some smaller destinations(Opens in a new window).

“I would certainly say that air carrier delays and weather delays (which can be considered NAS [National Aviation System] delay too) are likely to continue to be the two biggest reasons for delay going forward,” emailed Brett Snyder, president and “chief airline dork” at the Cranky Flyer.(Opens in a new window) blog and the Cranky Concierge(Opens in a new window) travel service.

He did offer some hope for coming months: “Travel naturally falls off beginning in late August and the weather tends to improve as well through the fall.”


Get an Early Warning About Trouble With a Flight

flight aware tracker

(Credit: FlightAware)

Your airline’s app or site should be the most direct source about possible delays, but its flight-status readout instead often represents a triumph of hope over experience. Worse yet, many airline status updates don’t include an ETA for the inbound plane that will Operate your flight. But third-party resources can fill that gap.

On the web, FlightAware.com(Opens in a new window) makes this simple: Enter your flight number, then select Track inbound plane to see when the jet in question arrives at your airport. FlightAware’s homepage also offers a high-level view of who’s having a bad day: Select Flight Tracking > Cancellations to see airline percentages of delays and cancellations.

Meanwhile, the FlightRadar24(Opens in a new window) app offers a cleaner presentation. Enter your flight number, tap Aircraft infoand check the flight listed directly below the one you’re supposed to be taking.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s site can also provide advance warnings of airport issues with its National Airspace System Status(Opens in a new window) page. From here, you can see all delays, ground stops, and closures across the US.


What to Do If Your Flight Is Canceled

woman in front of airline terminal board

(Credit: Martin-DM/Getty Images)

If your flight shows up as canceled—or the delays have dragged on for hours—start looking for alternatives at the airline’s app or site. If it shows seats for sale on other flights to your destination in the same class of service, that alternate routing is theoretically available to you. A self-serve rebooking option could have you in the air in no time.

However, what do you do if only phone support is available and the line only offers hold music?(Opens in a new window)use its Hold For Me feature to have the Phone app ring once a human picks up on the other end. It’s one of the greatest innovations in air travel since the lie-flat business-class seat.

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Don’t want to be stuck on the phone for hours? Twitter direct messaging has earned a reputation as a customer-relationship-management tool that offers a near-instant connection with empowered agents. It’s always worth a quick follow and DM.

Some airlines also offer chat support on their own site or over a choice of chat platforms. Know upfront if your airline requires one that you don’t use. For example, Facebook refuseniks flying Aer Lingus should know that the Irish carrier only does chat via Facebook Messenger(Opens in a new window).

ryanair facebook page

If you have access to the lounges of the airline you’re flying—usually by having a high-end airline credit card or by buying a day pass—and one’s open in your current airport, go there. Club, United Club, or Delta Sky Club should be among the more helpful customer reps you’ll find.

Snyder advises an all-of-the-above approach. “If you’re at the airport, get in line,” he wrote. the airline app/website to see if there are options that can be handled through self-serve.”

If your delay will force an extra overnight stay, see if the credit card you used to book the trip offers trip-delay coverage—as most premium cards now do. Having Chase, American Express, Capital One, or your card of choice reimburse those added costs can take some of the sting out of a trip going sideways(Opens in a new window).

At all times, remember that you’re dealing with fellow human beings out there. that people talk to on their travels,” Snyder said.

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