• Delays


    By Tony Vallillo


    All human endeavors are plagued with delays. No doubt those apes in "2001 A Space Odyssey" were a few minutes late to the party when one of them had a hard time finding a suitable bone. Trains are often delayed everywhere but Switzerland, and roads are so congested all over the world that traffic delays are not even the butt of jokes these days. Air travel, on the other hand, is amazingly free of delays... and watch as his nose grows longer and longer!

    Actually, delays in air travel occur at about the same rate as delays in other forms of transportation; especially those forms in which the number of users occasionally overwhelms the system. In fact, the majority of all transportation delays stem from overuse of the system. Although the Wright brothers probably had a few mechanical delays on December 3rd 1903, the potential for air delays began to really grow the day the world's second airplane was constructed.


    In the world of aviation, delays have three main causes: Mechanical delays (involving both the airplane itself and a wide array of ancillary equipment), Weather delays, and System or throughput delays involving saturation of the air traffic system (these are, in turn, often initiated by weather). Operators (airlines and individual pilots) have control over only some of the causes of delays. Mechanical delays can be minimized by careful attention to maintenance and inspections, along with an extra airplane or two on the property that can be used as a spare. But things are always susceptible to breaking at the last minute, even in the best run outfits. Weather can be coped with by training and equipping to the latest standards, but there are things like hurricanes, thunderstorms, blizzards, and certain kinds of icing conditions that simply cannot be safely handled. The ATC system could mayhap be upgraded, akin to adding lanes to a freeway, but although this is ongoing as we speak, it is glacially slow and extremely expensive. Meanwhile, more and more of us want to travel...

    Airlines are almost always on pogroms to better their on-time performance, the more so when the government takes an interest in such things, as it does from time to time. I recall the time when, back in the 1980's, the Transportation Department (apparently overwhelmed by a sudden urge for clarity that has never existed elsewhere in government) began to publish the airlines' on-time statistics. American's hard driving president Bob Crandall sagely perceived that whoever topped the ratings for the first year or so might derive some bragging rights from the achievement, rights that just might outlast their tenure at the top. So for about a year AA pulled out quite a few stops and succeeded in topping the fed's list of on-time airlines. This was done, among other ways, by an all-hands-on-deck push to ensure that every airplane got out on time for its first flight of the day. Maintenance, the aircrews, the flight attendants, the ramp crews, the catering crews and passenger service all pitched in to ensure this result, with surprising success. It was also fortunate that this effort occurred at a time of relative labor peace on the property! It worked, and the poet laureates in the marketing department soon began creating advertisements that sang the praises of "The On-Time Machine", an appellation that has seldom been applied since then to any airline! But for some years after that time, an aura of the On-Time-Machine clung to AA, long after we were eventually toppled off our perch.


    Actually, despite customers' near-total conviction to the contrary, airlines desperately DO want to run on time, if for no other reason than that delays can be extremely costly. Too little fuel carried (in an effort to lower fuel costs) may result in a diversion and hotel rooms for a plane load of people. Cuts in maintenance inspection frequency (even if allowed by regulations) can result in more mechanical delays and cancellations. Delays can cause crew misconnects that result in still more costly cancellations. Even the airlines' success can be problematic, as full airplanes lead to boarding delays. And so on, ad infinitum. To paraphrase Senor Solozzo in The Godfather: "Delays are a big expense!"

    No airline employee wants a delay either. The corporate cultures at most airlines are distinctly non-Japanese; that is, blame is fixed, rather than problems. A delay of even the shortest duration will start a downhill flow of a substance that is neither colorless nor odorless. Unless an employee is represented by a powerful union, like a pilot union, too many delays can be detrimental to a career, sometimes terminally. No indeed - delays are an anathema to all.


    Along the way, we must get one thing straight - there is no such thing as a "delayed" takeoff, for the simple reason that there is no scheduled takeoff time. The scheduled departure time is the block time, the time the wheels start turning (usually backwards) upon the start of pushback or taxi. This time is also the FAA's definition of the beginning of flight time, as pilots log it. The time you actually get airborne is completely outside of the immediate control of the airline, or your pilot, and has no meaning other than whatever psychological importance it may have to you as a passenger. It is indeed a rite of passage, but not a scheduled one.

    Tags: delays

    1. allanj12's Avatar
      allanj12 -
      Thanks for sharing the reminiscences, Tony. They brought back one or two shudders of my own travels!
    1. jgmustang's Avatar
      jgmustang -
      Amtrak might take longer, but it is a lot more fun.
    1. dbauder's Avatar
      dbauder -
      Tony, thanks for the anecdotes. As a retired Captain, I believe every one, been there done that, to an extent. I created my own delay one day. I was to take off from Tampa Florida (KTPA) one January morning and there was some frost on the wings. I asked the Agent what deicing was available and she laughed. She said the Captain the previous morning parked uphill on the crossover bridge (not on the actual bridge). Therefore, we were facing west and the wings were fully facing the sun in the east. It only took twenty minutes to 'defrost'.
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