So your flight got delayed. Here’s when you should head to the airport.

by Сашка

It all depends, but determine the cause before you decide

Travel is littered with forks in the road, and here’s another one: You learn that your flight is delayed while you’re still at home. Do you get comfortable and make yourself a sandwich, or stick to your original timeline and head to the airport?

“Be very careful about what you choose to do,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “Ultimately, the airline is not responsible for making sure you’re on the plane. That’s up to you. When departure time comes, that plane is going to leave.”

Delays occur for a slew of reasons, such as treacherous weather, aviation traffic, mechanical issues, labor disputes, crew scheduling or interloping animals on the runway. The airline’s operations control center, which acts like a nerve center for passenger aircraft, weighs a multitude of factors before declaring a new departure time. Airlines strive to make this figure as precise as possible to avoid upending the entire day’s schedule and upsetting passengers.

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“It kind of makes you look dumb if you say the flight is delayed by an hour and then you say it’s actually 15 minutes late. It erodes a lot of trust from a passenger,” said Max Barrus. vice president of planning and revenue at Breeze Airways. “Typically, if you’re going to post a delay, you’re going to stick with it.”

But not always. Airlines may shorten or lengthen the amount of time if the problem improves or worsens. Both scenarios can add a wrinkle to your schedule.

“Flight delays can be uncertain and, depending on the reason for the delay, flights can on occasion depart earlier than the original delay estimate,” said Tomasz Pawliszyn, chief executive of AirHelp, an online service that helps passengers obtain compensation. “In these cases, you wouldn’t want to stay home an extra hour to wind up missing the flight.”

Understanding the forces behind the delay can help you find the sweet spot between twiddling your thumbs at the gate and scrambling to the airport in a panic.

The length of the delay matters

When deciding whether to depart for the airport or dawdle at home, first consider the length of the delay. (The Transportation Department defines a delay as an arrival or departure that is at least 15 minutes past its scheduled time. From January through March, about 21 percent of flights were late.)

If the delay is less than an hour, proceed to the airport as planned. For two hours or less, Erika Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Advisors, errs on the side of caution and suggests arriving in time for your previously scheduled departure.

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“Airlines try to work quickly to resolve delays, and it’s quite possible your flight could leave earlier if the issue is resolved,” she said.

For longer delays, you can safely reschedule your ride to the airport, as long as a few other factors align.

Airlines are not required by law to compensate passengers for “significant delays” within their control and handle each situation on a case-by-case basis. The Biden administration recently proposed new rules that aim to protect airline customers inconvenienced by flight disruptions.

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Last year, the agency created a dashboard that lists the provisions U.S. airlines offer passengers in the event of a delay or cancellation. For example, all 10 carriers will provide a meal in some form when the delay is three hours or longer. None distribute cash compensation.

Sign up for notifications

According to the Transportation Department, as soon as an airline becomes aware of a flight change, it has 30 minutes to share the updated information with its passengers. At the very least, the carrier must provide the new details on its website and customer service phone line, if it still has one. In addition, for delays of at least a half-hour, the airline has 30 minutes to amend its flight status sources and displays.

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To stay abreast of time adjustments, sign up for the airline’s notifications. Carriers may contact you by phone, text, email or through their app. Southwest, for one, urges travelers to check their flight status on its mobile app or at southwest.com. “We also proactively deliver notifications to customers via email, text or automated call when a flight time changes, so they can make informed decisions,” said Laura Swift, a Southwest spokesperson.

Pinpoint your aircraft

Flight-tracking sites such as FlightAware and Flightradar24 provide real-time information, including the whereabouts of your plane.

“If your jet is parked at the gate, you can know the night before if it is going to leave on time, barring any mechanical issues,” said Kathleen Bangs, a FlightAware spokesperson, referring to an early-morning flight.

By following your aircraft’s journey, you will be better informed about the delay and its chances of sticking. Use this information to plot your own departure to the airport. If your plane is several airports behind schedule — for example, it must make a few stops before arriving at your departure point — you’ll have more time. If it’s en route or landing, don’t dillydally.

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“If the aircraft is at the airport or is expected to arrive soon or within a stated time, you need to be very careful about delaying your departure for the airport,” Harteveldt said. “The airline is always going to do whatever it can to make up for lost time.”

Larger airports have more flexibility

At larger facilities and hubs, such as Atlanta Hartsfield, Chicago O’Hare and Dallas-Fort Worth, airlines have a deeper pool of aircraft and personnel than smaller or secondary airports. This allows the airline greater flexibility to formulate an alternate plan.

For instance, a carrier at a major airport can replace a plane with a mechanical issue with one in good health. If the issue is staffing, the airline might have reserve crew members who can fill in for colleagues who are stranded in another location or whose shift hours have expired. For the safety of passengers and crew members, pilots and flight attendants cannot exceed the number of work hours prescribed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

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“If you’re flying into Houston on United, for example, they have all sorts of resources there,” Barrus said. “You’re probably less likely to see really big delays unless there’s a cascading effect.”

Investigate the reason for the delay

Some problems, such as a passing thunderstorm or congested airspace, might blow over faster than others, such as a technical issue or volcanic eruption. The delay could be static or fluid, based on the cause.

To determine the reason for the delay, check with the airline. A few carriers, such as United, are transparent and post detailed explanations on their website or app.

“We want you to know your flight is departing late because of a technical issue on your original plane that required a change to another aircraft to get you on your way,” United recently stated on its website, explaining a 14-minute delay on a flight from San Francisco to London.

For carriers that require deeper digging, try calling or direct-messaging the airline through social media and asking the agent about the particulars.

“Airlines do not always disclose the reason for the delay,” Pawliszyn said. “This makes it more challenging to assess the situation and determine whether the cause of the delay is within the airline’s control, like overbooking or an airline strike, or extraordinary circumstances outside of the airline’s control, like lightning strikes, political unrest or medical emergencies.”

Beware of the creeping delay

Be wary of the creeping delay, which can be more unpredictable than a flat delay. The incremental and frequent time changes can add up to an extended wait. Or, the flight might quickly recover and start boarding passengers with little warning.

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“Maybe you got a text or an alert that your flight would be delayed by 15 minutes, and then a few minutes later that delay was extended to 30, and that delay was extended further,” Barrus said. “It may be okay to give yourself a few extra minutes, but don’t be lazy about it. The airline is going to try to do all it can once that plane gets to your destination.”

If your delayed flight departs without you

If you make the wrong call, you could miss your flight. Even if you are at the airport, you should listen for announcements and check the board for updates. Wander off in search of food, and you could return to an empty gate.

“I did walk away from the gate once and a two-hour delay suddenly vanished, as did the plane, when I returned 25 minutes later,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.

If the plane takes off without you, go to the customer service desk, which can book you on the next available flight. Depending on the airline and availability, you may or may not be charged for a new ticket, Richter said.

With high travel demand and packed planes, you might have to sit around at the airport for a while — exactly what you had been trying to avoid in the first place.

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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