Delayed is the new normal

Over the past six months I have made countless trips, typically two to three night stays, and happen week after week.3-24-15-2 I fly back and forth from city to city.  Sometimes I fly Southwest, and sometimes I fly American (who is now introducing US Airways into the mix). Most of these trips have one thing in common: there’s almost always a delay.

Part of me wonders if I just have really bad luck, but I’m inclined to believe that this is more of a wide spread issue with Southwest and American.  Whatever it is, delayed seems to be the new normal.  Weather can be blamed for some of these delays.  When that happens you can’t really blame the airlines (although it’s still pretty annoying). However, many more of these delays can be attributed to maintenance issues.   When a maintenance delay happens you can be pretty confident that you’ll either be switching planes or delayed for at least a couple of hours.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for safety, but when delays happen due to maintenance over and over again there’s something wrong. Not sure if some of these planes need further inspections on the front end, if they need more maintenance workers, if planes need to be fully replaced because they are so old, or a combination of these, but if there are going to be maintenance issues on nearly every trip something needs to be addressed.

I was looking at the latest Air Travel Consumer Report and it looks like out of the 13 reporting airlines American/US Airways averaged 7th in on time percentage last November through January, and Southwest averaged 6th place. Both airlines had an on time percentage roughly in the high seventieth percentile for those three months compared to Delta in the high eighties.  According to the report air carrier delays (which maintenance is categorized under) for American and Southwest is around six percent of the time in January.  Delta air carrier delays happened about 40% less often in January (December and November had very similar results).

I haven’t kept count but if I had to guess I would say my maintenance-delayed flights in the past six months are happening much more often than six percent of the time, so obviously I’m having some bad luck lately.  However, it’s also obvious that American and Southwest have work to do if their rival can have such higher numbers.  What makes these delays so frustrating is that the impact can be pretty substantial.  There’s lost time with business partners, there’s the potential for revisits being necessary, lessened productivity, and much more.  Then there is the impact that it makes on us personally.  It affects our home life, exhausts us, stresses us, frustrates us, and just plain sucks.

I’m very tempted to change to Delta after my experiences and seeing these Air Travel Consumer Report numbers. However, until then here are some ways to help with delays.

Try out Nate Silver’s new tool.  I recently heard about Nate Silver’s new tool that helps determine which airport, airlines, and route will most likely get you to your destination on time from this USA Today story.  I’ve played around with it some and it looks very promising.  I haven’t put it to the test yet, but plan to soon and will let you know how it goes.   You can go straight to Nate Silver’s page here.

Power up. No matter how short your trip, bring your chargers!! On day trips I have often thought, I don’t need my phone charger—I’m gone less than a day. But when I’m delayed and have to use my phone or iPad to watch Netflix I am super glad to have that charger.  Also bring a mobile charger (and maybe a DC-USB charger). Try to have your devices charged before you get on the plane, but if you get stuck on the tarmac you have ways to charge.

Bring entertainment. An eReader is a great thing to have during a delay, with hundreds of books at your fingertips and the ability to buy more instantly. And may I just say, thank goodness for Netflix! Being stuck in an airport (or sitting in an airplane on the tarmac, omg) is way more fun if you’re catching up on your favorite shows.  I just finished season three of House of Cards, and now need to catch up on The Americans season three.   Of course if you have work you should probably finish that first. Unfortunately, my laptop is so old that my battery only lasts about 45 minutes. If there is no plug available I will usually get as much work done as possible before it dies and then enjoy some TV.

Snacks. I can’t say this enough—keep snacks in your bag at all times. You never know when you’ll be stuck on a plane that was scheduled to take off two hours ago. My almonds or Kind bar may not be the most exciting thing, but when I’m hungry with no meal in sight I will eat them gladly.

Wear layers. Planes are often freezing, and it’s very tempting to wear long sleeves and pants on travel days. However, when a plane is stuck on the ground I have found they typically turn down the air conditioner (or turn it off completely, ugh), and planes quickly get sweltering under those conditions. It’s easier to wear a dress and bring a pashmina and cardigan to wear when it’s cold, instead of trying to stay cool in long sleeves and pants.

Be comfortable. I always like to have my glasses with me, even for day trips. That way if I get stuck in the airport I can take out my contacts and be more comfortable. For day trips I will take a few small toiletry items with me for the same reason—face wipes, moisturizer, and a disposable toothbrush.

Call airline customer service. If you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed or cancelled, immediately call customer service while you walk over to the agent line. While both will probably be slow, coming at the problem from two sides gives you a chance of a faster solution. I have often called customer service as soon as my plane lands if my connection is delayed.

Have a plan b.  As soon as a delay is announced I immediately start looking for a plan b on my phone.  I ask myself  ‘what will I do if I miss my connecting flight?’  Then if I know I’m going to miss my connection I’ll have a plan in place that I can quickly relay to a customer service agent.  If the delay is the fault of the airlines (such as mechanical and not weather) ask for a concession such as an upgrade to first class on the next flight or miles.

Have patience. Delays suck, there’s no doubt about it. Unfortunately for frequent travelers there is no way to avoid them. Take a deep breath, watch a TV show, drink a glass of wine, and remember you will be home soon!

Readers, have you noticed more delays than normal lately when flying Southwest and/or American? 

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  1. I have absolutely noticed more Southwest delays lately. Last month I had a two-day trip to New Orleans. My first flight was delayed due to mechanical issues and the agents proactively booked me on a different flight. I immediately boarded that flight and we sat there for 45 minutes because of mechanical issues, and eventually had to change planes. My return flight was also delayed several hours for unknown reasons, though as soon as I got notice they were able to rebook me on an earlier flight. It’s so frustrating because normally I’m a big Southwest fan – but I will give them a shoutout for having short wait times and helpful agents when you call to reschedule.

  2. I don’t fly Southwest much but I do fly US and AA mostly. I haven’t experienced any delays. I have witnessed some late departures where everything is go but we are waiting on paperwork for an extra 5 minutes. Last week I was on a United Turboprop at Denver and the FA had to get off the plane and yell at the ground crew guys because they delayed the flight 10 minutes waiting on some water from catering. It was actually quite funny.

  3. I fly from Los Angeles to Little Rock, AR and back every week on AA, connecting through DFW.I have noticed more delays than usual on the DFW-LAX leg, and it’s typically due to mechanical issues. However, delays have always been the norm going in and out of Little Rock (these flights are almost exclusively American Eagle flights). In fact, my flight to Little Rock yesterday looked like it was going to be one of the very few times the flight was going to leave early. No mechanical issues, everyone was boarded, doors shut and about to push back when a guy in the first row decided he needed to get off the plane. I’m convinced he was an airline employee whose sole job is to ensure they keep their perfect not on time record.

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