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How to Navigate Airline Delays This Holiday Season

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The holiday travel season is officially underway with the first of the year-end holidays behind us. However, with more holidays on the horizon comes full planes, kids (lots and lots of kids) and also those holiday travelers (you know, those folks who only travel once a year and still haven't figured out that your liquids need to be in containers under 3.4 oz and manage to hold up the whole security line as they argue with the agents to keep their full size tube of toothpaste... yeah, them). But, the biggest frustration during this time of the year for flight attendants, pilots and passengers is flight delays.

In the airline industry, when a flight is delayed it usually means that something is wrong, somewhere. Generally, you're delayed because the airline cannot get you to your destination safely at the present moment, but is trying to work through the issue.

There are various types of delays, and each one comes with its own set of issues and problems, and sometimes the fix is out of the airline's control and all you can do is sit and wait... and wait some more. Before I get into explaining some of these delays, I want to make one other point clear: the flight crew doesn't want to be delayed, either. What most passengers fail to realize is flight crews are only paid when they're... in-flight. So, when they're on the ground they're not get paid. This is why is you're stuck at the gate and delayed over, say, two hours, you may be asked to get off the plane. The flight attendants aren't being paid to answer questions, provide a beverage service or even be the "face of the airline." The airlines expect us to provide that excellent customer service, but don't pay us to do so when it is the most critical.

Mechanical Delay. This is an easy one. The plane has a mechanical issue that needs to be resolved before it can safely become airborne. Now a days, airplanes fly themselves so mechanical delays can be caused by a physical piece of the airplane, a discrepancy in the cabin which the F.A.A. requires to be fixed before flight or a computer malfunction. Computers power almost all of the newer aircrafts out there today. An error message in the flight deck can easily cause a delay depending on what error and what section of the aircraft it's referencing. I once had a mechanical in which a passenger asked me: "Couldn't they have found this before? Why now?" to which my simple answer to explain the situation was: "It's like your computer at home. It starts up,it moves, but once it gets going you get that "illegal operation" message, and the whole thing shuts down. Sometimes you don't find a problem until you're underway." If you're lucky, though, the delay will be found at the gate and you can comfortably await a fix while in the terminal. However, a mechanical delay doesn't reflect poorly on an airline's safety record, and the news of the delay should be taken in stride. They're ensuring the aircraft is operational so you get there safely. Isn't that reason to not complain?

"Flow Control," "ATC Delay," or "Ground Delay Program (GDP") . This is a delay which rattles my nerves all the time, and I know what causes it. A "GDP" goes into effect when an airport is congested, usually due to weather. When weather strikes an airport, the rate of arriving aircraft has to be decreased to ensure each of them have ample time to safely descend and clear the runway. When you decrease the rate of arrivals, aircraft stay airborne longer "holding" until it's their time to land. Well, those aircrafts headed to the destination whom have not yet left their departure airport are put on a "GDP" and held on the ground until a pre-determined time (set by Air Traffic Control, not the airline) where it can safely take-off, hold if they need to (with ample fuel) and land safely. Sometimes if the delay is issued far enough in advance that you will be notified in the terminal but it the GDP issuance can also occur after boarding in which case you may be asked to deplane or, if the delay isn't that long, they will close the door and push back so that the flight crew can begin getting paid. These delays are out of the airlines control.

Crew Rest Delay. This delay usually ends with passengers saying to me: "Did you get enough sleep?" Flight attendants and pilots are required to have a minimum of eight hours on the ground "resting" every night. Mind you, "resting" is in quotes because the literal meaning of "rest" is not being used. The way the regulation is written should spark an uproar in the name of safety, but it doesn't. Flight crewmembers just require eight hours from the time their plane opens the door the night before until the time their plane pushes back the next day. That's our "rest." Deplaning, cleaning the plane, getting off, going to the hotel, checking in, getting up in the morning, getting dressed and going back to the airport is all "rest" according to the F.A.A. Sometimes because of GDP's and mechanical delays, our arrival into a city is late enough that it decreased our rest time under the eight-hour limit. At that point, the flight we work out the next morning is put on a "crew rest delay" to account for the extra time we are required to have on the ground. Please realize if this happens to you, you're not delayed because the crew wanted to sleep in, you're delayed because the F.A.A. requires them to be on the ground for eight hours after a duty period.

Gate Hold. This delay is different than a GDP. Gate holds are issued when the traffic on the taxiways at an airport begins to build and becomes jammed. This usually occurs at airports with many international flights and domestic flights all scheduled around the same time. The hold just means that a plane cannot push back from the gate until an air traffic control operator in the tower clears the plane to do so. These delays usually don't go over 30 to40 minutes, but bad weather can extend these delays.

Now that I've given you a quick "behind the scenes" of some of the more common delays, I'm curious to find out what delays you've encountered during your travels. How was the delay explained and how was the news received?

If you encountered a delay and you're confused at what it meant feel free to post a comment below and I'll explain it the best I can!