What causes airline delays and cancellations?

April 13, 2017 - Business Travel, Corporate Travel, supertravelbooker /

There is nothing more frustrating than arriving at an airport to find out your flight has been delayed, or worse cancelled! Especially when travelling for an important business meeting. We look at the causes of flight delays & cancellations and what can be done about them.

The facts

2015 Delays

USA 140,575
North America 164,780
Europe 98,708
Asia Pacific 201,747

2015 Cancellations

USA 22,969
North America 25,709
Europe 8,080
Asia Pacific 18,774

The cost

£581 mil lost in GDP in UK
10% Avg. productivity lost
£500+ worth of time lost
£750 mil in compensation by airlines

1. Weather

Although it doesn’t happen that often, when extreme weather grounds flights it usually does it on a devastating scale, with the ash cloud of 2010 being the most notable incident.

Poor weather conditions however is a more common cause, for example it may delay a plane from landing which has a knock-on affect throughout the world. Airlines can’t be held responsible for delays or cancellations due to inclement weather, but once the storms clear out they will often reschedule you onto the next available flight at no extra charge.

2. Traffic / Congestion

Did you know that nearly 100,000 flights cross paths every day in the US alone? Issues only arise however when air traffic is particularly busy due to a holiday or other event, and one flight’s delay may lead to many others.

This may also mean that a flight normally scheduled to arrive on time might have to ‘circle’ around the airport area as congestion requires air traffic controllers to hold some flights in a prescribed pattern before they are cleared to land.

3. Maintenance / Fuelling

Pre-flight checks are performed before every flight and if maintenance issued are discovered, the flight will not embark until the issue has been fully addressed. Sometimes the issues will be being worked on as passengers aboard the plane, meaning the delay you experience might take place entirely on the tarmac. Other times, in the case of larger issues, your airline might make the call to switch planes entirely for the safety of everyone involved.

Also did you know it can take up to 2 hours to refuel a jet? Especially the large craft meant for long-haul or trans-oceanic flights. Many flights have tight turnaround times and may have already been delayed prior, meaning the vital refuelling takes preference over leaving on the allocated time.

4. Airline issues

This can cover a host of problems within a specific airline including computer glitches, industrial action or even consolidating flights if they are undersold.

Even a relatively small computer glitch can cause massive delays and cancellations all around the world, or worse an airlines entire IT system crashes. Sometimes airlines are forced to cancel or consolidate flights too, usually when staff are on strike or they cannot sell enough seats making it financially not worth them flying, although they might not tell you that is the case.

5. Security

Despite accounting for only 0.03% of delays on the graph below, security checks often seem lengthy especially during busy periods. The airports usually have systems in place to deal with queues however sometimes they may be simply overwhelmed or are conducting stricter checks. It’s unclear whether an airline will hold the flight for passengers stuck in security, which affects not only the travellers in line, but also the ones on the plane waiting to taxi to the runway.

What can you do about delays and cancellations? 

  • As a general rule, the earlier in the day you fly, the less likely there is to be a delay.
  • Check your flight status on flightstats.com before you leave
  • Avoid travelling at rush hours and peak season (if possible)
  • Check if you and your business are owed any compensation from previous delays and cancellations below

Find out more about how CTI can help with your delay compensation, what have you got to lose?