My first flight was late, but I thought I could make my connection. I ran up to the gate, the airplane was there, but the door was closed. Why didn’t they hold my connecting flight for me?
-Every person who has ever flown
I believe this question was first asked by Orville Wright who, after piloting the first successful powered flight, missed his connection when Wilbur took off without him. And it’s something that has vexed travelers ever since that day.
On the surface, it seems so easy. You made it to the gate before departure time, but the airplane pushed back 5 minutes early. Why the f*&@ couldn’t they hold that airplane? There are actually a lot of reasons why. Whether they’re good reasons or not is in the eye of the beholder. (If you’re a traveler who just missed a connection, it’s NEVER a good reason.)
I talked to a Delta spokesperson to get a better sense of how that airline, the on-time king among the big four US airlines, goes about determining whether or not to hold a flight.
At Delta, each hub has its own airport coordination center to make these calls. Non-hub decisions run through Atlanta. And a lot goes into that decision.
Impacting the Fewest People
Let’s say one person is going to miss a connection unless they hold her flight. Is it worth holding the airplane while inconveniencing the 150 people already onboard? In most cases, that would be silly. What if 15 people are going to miss the flight by 5 minutes? That changes things. But even more important may be what options exist for those people.
Are they connecting through LA to get to San Francisco and there’s another flight with plenty of seats a mere 1 hour later? If so, it’s highly unlikely they’ll hold that airplane. Is this the last flight of the night? There’s a better chance they’ll hold it. I mean, if it’s only 5 minutes…
It’s Not a 5 Minute Delay
One of the misconceptions, however, is that it’s just a 5 minute delay when it could very well be more. I asked Delta specifically about Los Angeles, since that’s where a client recently got stuck when her flight from San Jose was late and they didn’t hold the last Honolulu flight of the night. Though I couldn’t get specifics about that particular flight, I was told that gate space is a real issue there and that makes holding even trickier.
Delta is gate-constrained at LAX and it schedules a bunch of airplanes with little slack on each gate every day. That Honolulu flight left 5 minutes early. So let’s say they hold it 10 minutes so it goes 5 minutes late. She gets on board, and it takes a little bit before they’re ready to push. Add 5 minutes more. Now the airline has to get its rampers to come push the airplane back and they may be working another flight. So the Honolulu flight waits another 5 minutes. Now maybe other flights have pushed back and the airplane has to wait for the alley to be cleared before it can go. In the meantime, another airplane could be sitting on the taxiway in the penalty box waiting for that Honolulu flight to get the heck out of there.
Think about the people on that flight that’s waiting for the gate. What if those people are also trying to make their connections? Delta will allow connections as short as 35 minutes at LAX. Even a 20 minute delay could mean those people miss their flights, and those could have been the last flight of the night. All of this has to be balanced when a decision is made on whether or not to hold.
As if that’s not enough, Delta, like every airline, has to consider what its crews are allowed to do. There are strict rules on how much crews can fly and how long they can be on duty. If those limits are exceeded, flights have to be canceled (unless a reserve crew is available). Again, a 5 minute delay isn’t likely to be a problem, but remember how that other delay ballooned into a 20 minute delay?
Well, what if the airplane then finds itself in the middle of peak departures at the airport? The taxi time could increase a lot because of that. And then the crew may run up against its time limits. Or maybe it’s not enough to ruin this flight for the crew, but they might have another flight right afterwards, and they won’t have enough time available for that one. If their next flight isn’t until morning, it’s possible that they won’t have the minimum required rest between flights. So the morning flight could be delayed.
If this all sounds a little too “slippery slope” to you, that’s not really the point. It would be insane to suggest this happens every single time, but the point is simply to show the complexity involved in such decisions. There is often more behind the scenes that can’t be seen while standing at the gate cursing the bastard who wouldn’t let you onboard.
Does this mean there’s always a good reason when an airline refuses to wait? I doubt it. I’m sure sometimes the pressure of trying to boost on-time numbers creeps in. Sometimes people probably just make poor decisions. That just sucks. But more often than not, it’s likely there really is a reason. At least, let’s hope that’s the case.