Why Did Delta Move My Departure Time Earlier at the Last Minute? (Ask Cranky)

Ask Cranky, Delta

Let’s get this week started with an Ask Cranky question, shall we? At first read, I thought this was kind of a basic question, but I quickly realized I was wrong.Ask Cranky Delta is doing something rather interesting here. Take it away, Michael…

My girlfriend is in grad school at Michigan and so I travel there all the time from San Francisco. Tonight, about three and a half hours prior to departure, we got a text telling us that our flight on Delta was leaving early. It looks like it wasn’t only us, but also the flight to Atlanta. Look at the screen, it’s scheduled for 10:15, status is leaving at 10:00.

What’s going on here?

Well this one seems obvious, right? I mean airlines close their doors early all the time, and it’s not uncommon for them to push back before scheduled departure. But wait, that’s not what’s happening here. Look at the photo Michael sent. This is something different.

Delta Leaves Early

Sure enough, Delta didn’t just shut the doors early. It actually changed the estimated departure time like it would in a delay. Less than 4 hours before the new, earlier departure time, Michael got a text from Delta saying the flight would go 15 minutes early. Presumably the decision wasn’t made long before that. So…why?

I went to Delta to get the answer, and this is what spokesperson Michael Thomas had to say.

We’re in somewhat of a transition period where the Jetstream is somewhat weaker than it is normally this time of year (we’ve stayed warmer later in the year driving lighter winds aloft across the continental US (the Jetstream has remained further north, relatively). This has resulted in lighter headwinds for flights heading westbound and similarly lighter tailwinds heading eastbound.

Our block times are based on historical averages and on [that day’s] flights, the flight plan was built taking into account lighter than historical tailwinds. You’ll notice both of those flights arrived on schedule. It’s likely had the flights not departed a tad early, the flight would have arrived past the scheduled arrival time.

We can’t do it with every flight, of course, but where we have opportunities to do the right thing for our customers, provide advance notice and get them there on schedule, we’re going to do it.

That is interesting, no? With lighter tailwinds, the flight heading east would have taken longer than usual. Presumably the airplane came from the east, and it likely arrived early in San Francisco due to lighter than usual headwinds on the way out. If the airplane is there and they have enough time to turn it around, why not try to go early to keep the eastbound flight arriving on time?

I like it, especially since I’m sure plenty of people had connections on the other end. Even a 15 minute delay could have busted some of the shortest connections, so this is the right thing to do. And in San Francisco, I doubt there were many if any people connecting in to those flights from elsewhere. People just needed to get to the airport a bit early.

But what if they didn’t? What if someone showed up at the gate at 10pm for that Detroit flight? Delta rules require being in the gate area and ready to board 15 minutes before scheduled departure. That airplane would have already been gone, and that person would have been livid. I asked Michael at Delta about that.

We would not have left unless we had all the customers we expected.

That answers that. It would have been nice if Delta had a way of saying “Expected flight time tonight is longer than normal due to light winds, so get to the airport early. That way, we can leave early and get you there on time.” Of course, Delta’s systems are nowhere near that robust. The next best thing is to just change the departure time and hope everyone shows up.

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

24 comments on “Why Did Delta Move My Departure Time Earlier at the Last Minute? (Ask Cranky)

    1. Yes – quite interesting. I had a flight from EWR – LAX that was changed twice, but in that case it was more or less just a schedule rotation & if you can believe it the flight left on time.

  1. Interesting and I wouldn’t have thought of the meteorological aspect of it. I would be delighted if most of my flights pushed early, providing they weren’t waiting on a last minute connecting pax. If weather is the excuse, fine by me, but getting people to their destinations earlier would be more than adequate for me.

  2. 15 minutes isn’t all that much and most people more then lightly had been at the gate area already, But people do connect in to night flights, don’t have smart phones to get a text, or are just delayed for some reason.

    So it seems DL would have rather have people miss the flight (like they’d still wait), then to use some extra fuel to fly ‘faster’ to make up for a lighter tail wind.

    1. The last quote from Delta indicates that even when they move the flight time up a few minutes, they will still wait for pax until the original departure time if needed.

      Perhaps Delta could try to increase airspeed to compensate some, but only to a certain point. Even a higher airspeed may still result in a lower than preferred/planned ground speed if headwinds are much higher than the original assumption used to make the schedule.

      Really, I see this as Delta’s way of saying, “Hey people, traffic/weather is supposed to be worse than expected, so if at all possible please be ready to leave a few minutes earlier than planned,” similar to what the driver of a car might say to the passengers a few hours before the start of a road trip.

      1. higher speed might also be less efficient, costing more in fuel. But if people are ready to board early, and most pax are generally happy to leave early as they are at the airport anyway, it’s a win-win

  3. The airline industry has been hammering on customers for years to get to airports early to deal with security and longer lines. A passenger starting their trip who is at risk for missing a flight because they like arriving at the last minute is inconsiderate at best and an idiot at worst. How many times have we heard gate agents desperately paging passengers who have checked in but haven’t boarded? How many times have we patiently waited in security lines to see people race up, frantic to get through because their flight is boarding, and begging TSA or airline agents to let them go to the front of the line? The airlines have an obligation to get passengers to their destination in a timely manner. But first, passengers have an obligation to get to the gate in a timely manner. The airplane is usually at the gate and ready to go at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled departure. Passengers should be too.

  4. Dear Delta,

    I’m in somewhat of a transition period right now where my finances are a little weaker than they are normally this time of the year. This has resulted in a lighter wallet for air fares. I’ll be paying you 65 cents on the dollar for all those tickets I’ve bought. I trust you will understand.

    Wishin’ you pleasant operations and that your computers don’t break! Luv’ y’all!

  5. I had an opposite issue going the other direction with surprising results. On Saturday morning I’m at JFK early for my 8:15 LAX flight. Noticed the 7 am flight was pushed to 8 and didn’t give it a second thought. Right at 8 am I receive a text saying my flight is being pushed to 9. OK.

    While at boarding area, an announcement went out at the gate for the 10:30 LAX flight was being delayed and if any passengers wanting to get on now 9 am flight should see a gate agent.

    Long story short – due to the wind change, left 45 min late, arrived 30 min early, had a gate at LAX and had shortest JFK to LAX flight ever.

  6. We used to do this all the time when I was a Zone Controller in BOS with UA, especially on the transcons and LHR flights. Trust me, the year UA was #1 in on time arrival performance (2002?) we did this a LOT, and it worked. To do it on a systemwide level requires a lot of planing, plus rallying the troops and for them all to be behind it. Most impressive on Delta’s part.

  7. LAX has been impacted by this phenomena over the course of the past week. One recent morning, the FAA issued a ground stop for LAX arrivals from adjacent air route traffic control centers (Oakland, Seattle, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Guadalajara). This was due to the number of early arrivals without gates available to taxi to. The ground stop lasted approximately 1 hour and resulted in at least one inbound diversion.

    Essentially, the western two-thirds of the continental U.S. have had slack upper winds aloft.

    To get some perspective of the behavior of the jetstream over the last few days, I’ll post a link:
    Just a couple of tabs (example – select: (1) 7 days, (2) 12 hours, and (3) build) will give you an animation of what has occurred.

  8. Domestic check-in cut off is still 30 minutes before departure. It is possible that someone who checked in online before the change was made might not be at the airport for the earlier departure but Delta still has a means to contact every person who checked in early.

    Given how tight gates are at some airports and how close some connections are built, this kind of thing is great as long as everyone is informed.

    The chances of ending up having to wait for someone past the early departure time is slim. and it was been done by Delta and other airlines long before the current emphasis on on-time performance.

  9. It’s nice that Delta says they would wait for people arriving with their original departure time in mind. Whether that is actually true…

  10. This happened to me a couple years ago when flying DL out of EZE because of unfavorable winds. I think it too long to board and we left on time anyway, but arrived into ATL about 20 minutes late. I saw something like this last Friday when I was flying out of SEA and thought it was odd. I give DL credit for doing everything it can to run an on-time airline. They seem to run a tight ship.

  11. What if I got that message and then didn’t bother showing up because I wasn’t going to make it in time? Would they put me on the next flight or give me a refund?

    1. Jim – If you didn’t show up and never told the airline, you’d be a no-show and you’d forfeit the value of the ticket.

    2. they said in the article that “We would not have left unless we had all the customers we expected.” So my guess is they would “delay” to original departure time then leave you behind.

  12. The opposite happened to me this morning going west from Tampa to LAX. Flight was delayed by 15 minutes so that we wouldn’t arrive early and have to wait for a gate.

  13. To me the explanation is even simpler…

    I have been flying for nearly 30 years and I’ve noticed that over the years airlines have been “padding” their scheduled flight times more and more so as to make it look like they don’t miss their on-time arrivals stats as often. It seems to me that Delta is one of the worst when it comes to the amount padding done.

    Well, if you pad a lot like they do then what happens is that some flights arrive at their destinations early and in order to minimize ground turn-around time they simply move up the departure on the equipment’s next leg.

  14. Can we revisit this? I’m the cranky passenger that was left behind on 04/26/2022 on a flight from SLC to SAT. When Mr. Michael Thomas said “We would not have left unless we had all the customers we expected”, that was a lie, I had already checked-in. I was in line rebooking my flight with another left behind passenger as well. For perspective, I was on time for my original flight and gave myself an hour to check in my bag (Delta makes this super easy, you print a tag at the kiosk and hand it to a representative ~5 minutes) and make it through TSA pre-check (I checked the wait time online). I also mapped my gate distance so I’d know where I was headed. They sent a message with less than an hours notice moving the flight ahead 15 minutes. Because they changed the time, I was blocked at the kiosk from checking in my bag (I had 2 of them) and had to talk to a representative (you can’t check a bag with less than 45 minutes prior to departure). Explained my situation to 2 representatives and waited 15 minutes in line. When the person at the desk looked up my flight information, this was her chance to let the flight crew know “we have someone here who needs to board”. Instead she told me “I don’t think you’ll make it now but you can try and see if they’ll let you take both bags on the flight”. Ran through TSA and the airport (with 2 bags!) and missed it by minutes. I get that I’m the irresponsible passenger when I miss a scheduled flight because I didn’t arrive on time but Delta should take responsibility when they change a flight to an earlier time with less than an hours notice. Since I had bags to check, they effectively blocked me from getting on the flight at that time. When I asked a Delta rep the reason to try and be understanding (no-one can control the weather) she told me sometimes the pilot just wants to leave early and that I should make a complaint. I asked Delta for compensation under the involuntarily denied boarding clause and they said it was my fault and gave me a courtesy 5,500 Skymiles points. So here we are… complaining on the internet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier