Passengers often get extremely frustrated when they arrive at the airport expecting to depart on time only to then have to spend long hours in the terminal due to operational delays. Air transport is arguably the safest and most reliable form of transport. To maintain the level of safety passengers expect airline staff have to ensure the airline operates to a very high standard.

The airlines put an extremely high priority on on-time performance. Each and every delay is reported and lots of man hours and money is invested in preventing ( or at least minimising ) future delays.

In this article six most common reasons for flight delays are explained.

1. Meteorological conditions

Meteorological conditions have a major influence on aircraft, especially during the critical phases of taking off, approach and landing. Air Traffic Control usually prevent aircraft from taking-off during conditions that are beyond the capabilities of civil aircraft. There is the obvious conditions such as typhoons or serve snow storms. A quick look out the terminal window will confirm this.

An example of a less obvious situation may be that due to strong winds the airport may be limited to single runway operations thus significantly reducing hourly movements.

2. Technical Issues

Although extremely reliable airplanes do experience technical problems. If the problem is minor, the airplane can depart but with some restrictions. If the maintenance issue is noncritical these faults can be carried and fixed at a later date. The list of airplane components which can be inoperative in flight is called MEL – Minimum Equipment List. This list provides guidance to the PIC (pilot in command) as to what defective items are acceptable within the defined time frame, without jeopardizing the safety of the airplane. An example of an item which would be an MEL item would be the APU (auxiliary power unit), nice to have but not essential.

If the airplane has a major technical issue there are two possible solutions :

  1. Delay the flight and fix the airplane.
  2. Assign this flight to another airplane.

These delays can be long, especially when it is necessary to wait for components to arrive at the base airport from the aircraft manufacturer. If it is decided to assign this flight to another airplane, this often means that it is necessary to wait for that airplane to arrive from its previous destination.

3. Enroute delay

There are many factors that can delay the flight after push back.

Here are some of the most common :

  • Delay for pushback due to apron congestion
  • Long taxi or runway change
  • Diverting around en route weather
  • Traffic or whether holding at the destination airport.
  • No available parking gate

4. Fail to board Passengers

One of the most common delays in shutting the last aircraft door is when passengers go missing after check-in. If you look at the major international airports, the departure area looks more like a shopping mall than an airport. It’s totally understandable (albeit frustrating) that a passenger might lose track of time.

The current trend of airports not making boarding announcements so they don’t ruin the “shopping experience”, doesn’t help.

This leads to either finding the missing pax or offloading their luggage.

Basically, it’s what happens first. In today’s world, I think we all understand this delay is a small price to pay to maintain the level of security required.

5. Industrial

Although not common, industrial action does occur. Since deregulation of aviation market and foundation of low-cost carriers, traditional airlines need to improve their business model in order to save their position on the market and prevent bankruptcy. This practically means that traditional airlines need to cut their expenses in order to offer passengers cheaper flight ticket. This policy has the effect of reducing working conditions and pay for their employees.

The most recent strike activity was performed by Lufthansa pilots in November 2016, where 1700 flights were canceled. This lead to enormous disruption in flight schedule and almost 350000 passengers lost their connections and flights (Reuters)

6. Ramp Handling

Probably the most common every day delay occurs below the wing. Below the wing includes baggage handling, freight, fuel.

Airline staff and contractors work hard to minimise these delays thru robust systems and training. A large number of factors can delay departure which is not always obvious to the passenger seated on board.

Here are some of the reasons :

  • Late Baggage delivery/positioning
  • Incorrect Cargo documentation
  • Inaccurate cargo data entered into weight and balance system
  • Cargo late acceptance
  • Cargo inadequate packing Nature of packing issue
  • Staff shortages
  • Lack of loading
  • No Ground Operations-supplied de-Icing equipment available
  • Lack of other servicing equipment.
  • Fuelling/de-fueling due fuel load error.
  • Fuelling/de-fuelling due paperwork
  • Lack of pushback equipment.
  • Ground handling impaired by weather.