We’ve all been there, spending hours and hours in the airport as the flight is delayed. How do pilots cope with delays?
In general, most delays are caused by either of the following:
Air Traffic Control restrictions
All airplanes are checked by maintenance on a daily basis and before every flight by the pilots. This is important to ensure the safety of the flight. If a system malfunction or system alert arises during flight or on the ground, the airplane needs to be checked before the next flight. Pilots are not trained as mechanic, so the moment we notice a problem, we call our maintenance staff. The maintenance will look for the cause of the problem and fix the problem or replaces a part if required.
This, of course, takes time and whilst they are completely aware of the inconvenience it causes for the passengers, they can not rush their tasks. If it takes more time to solve a problem, the plane will be taken out of service and a standby airplane will be flown in to perform the flight. The broken plane can only go back to service if all problems are solved and all components are fixed. It then gets signed off by maintenance. In these circumstances, no matter how inconvenient for the passengers, safety has a higher priority than on time performance.
Sometimes, the weather conditions are the reason for long delays. In case of Low Visibility for example. Not all airports are fully equipped for low visibility approaches. Arriving aircraft may need to divert to another airport if the visibility is too low to land. Take off may be delayed and the aircraft have to wait until the visibility is big enough for take off.
Strong wind. Even though aircraft can withstand a lot of wind, they do have limitations. The limitations depend on the direction of the wind and whether is steady or gusty. If the wind is out of limits, we are not allowed to land or take off until the wind slows down.
Thunderstorms are a risk for airplanes, both for lightning strikes and for the turbulence and icing inside the cumulonimbus clouds. If the thunderstorm is over the airfield, we may need to hold before we can land or divert to another airport. Refueling on ground is not allowed during thunderstorms.
In Winter Operations, with snow and ice, airplanes need to be de-iced and anti-iced before take off by ground staff. This could take a while, especially if all other aircraft are also in queue to be de-iced!
Snow and slush on the runway reduces the effectivity of the brakes (brake effect) and we can not take off with freezing rain or freezing fog.
Also in case of adverse weather conditions, we need to take safety in mind and not take any risks. We always need to take the rules and regulations established with regards to adverse weather and limitations into account!
ATC restrictions. Often, especially in summer, we get air traffic control slots. A departure slot means that we have to take off at a certain time. We can take off maximum 5 minutes before, or 10 minutes after our slot time. This slot can be at the scheduled departure time, but can also be two hours after the scheduled departure time. If we board the passengers, we may send a ready message, which means that if there is an opportunity to take off earlier, we can take off earlier and reduce the delay.
ATC restrictions are usually caused by limited parking availability at the destination or due to traffic congestion en-route.
And all of this happens while you are waiting in the terminal, and all you can see is the plane being delayed. Limited information is available and you don’t know how much time longer you will have to wait. The point is, that we in many cases don’t know that either.From our own experiences we know how annoying it can be to be waiting for a delayed flight without any information. The only thing we can do is maintain clear communication with our passengers, either by ourselves or via the ground staff and hope for the problem to be solved soon or for the weather to improve, so that we can depart as soon as possible.
And all you can see is the plane being delayed. Limited information is available and you don’t know for how long you have to wait. The point is, in many cases, that we do not know that either. We always try to give as much information as possible to our passengers and we do know from own experiences how annoying it can be to have a delay. All we can do is be patient, maintain clear communication with our passengers and hope that we can depart soon!