October 02, 2006
Flight Delays
Posted by Fred Tung

I had the displeasure this weekend of flying Delta to Toronto (for CLEA), and having my early morning flights delayed both coming and going. What was unusual, in my experience, was that in both cases, Delta personnel informed us passengers that the reason for the delay was that the flight crew hadn’t shown up, and the reason they hadn’t shown up was that they had gotten in late the night before. Because flight crews are required to have a certain number of hours of rest between flights, my flights were delayed because the assigned crews could not (legally?) work the flights at the scheduled times. 

Now, in these situations, presumably Delta knows well in advance of the scheduled flight time—at least sometime the evening before the flight, and perhaps even earlier—that the assigned crew cannot work the early morning flight at the appointed time, and that if unless another crew is substituted, the flight has to depart late. But on my outbound flight, no advance announcement of any departure delay was ever indicated on the flight schedule, either on Delta’s website or in the terminal. Instead, the gate agents simply kept pushing back the departure time in fifteen-minute intervals—five or six times—explaining each time only that the crew had not arrived. So at the time, I’m thinking, “Gee, usually when you show up really late for work, they fire you.” It wasn’t until we eventually got on the plane that the pilot explained over the PA system why the crew was late.  At least for my 6:20AM return flight the next morning, the delay was posted on the internet flight schedule. Except I didn’t check it until I had already woken up at 4:00AM, showered and gotten dressed and packed for the airport. Ugh.

So this experience prompts a few questions. First, is it out of the question for Delta to find a substitute crew to work the early flight? Do (all) other airlines put the risk of insufficient crew rest hours from the previous day on the next day’s morning passengers? Note this is a little different from having to wait for your plane to arrive and unload its arriving passengers. Here, the airline has at least a good 8 or 10 or 12 hours’ notice of the possible delay, and presumably finding a substitute crew is easier and cheaper than finding a substitute plane. Sure, finding another crew in these situations will increase operating costs. But I’m sure as heck not going to choose Delta next time if another option is available. (It might turn out to be no better—or even worse—than Delta, but I’m happy to give it a shot.)

Second, is it that costly to disclose the departure delay in advance? Presumably, some passengers would find alternative flights, and Delta couldn’t impose cancellation penalties for flight commitments it couldn’t fulfill, right? Even assuming that’s right, it seems to me that it still might be profit maximizing for Delta to disclose early. First off, under current pricing practices, it would probably be difficult for most passengers to find a palatable fare on an alternative airline on such short notice, so there won’t be many cancellations—except for those passengers who simply decide not to fly that day.  Second, wouldn’t a policy of early disclosure offer enormous marketing advantages? If an airline always disclosed flight delays as early as possible, I would certainly favor that airline over its less helpful competitors. Even if it didn’t enable me to switch flights, I would appreciate the information for planning purposes. I’m no expert on the cost structure. Am I missing something?

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