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Is Delta Delaying Flights Indefinitely to Avoid Cancellations?

July 17, 2019
6 min read
Is Delta Delaying Flights Indefinitely to Avoid Cancellations?
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For the past few years, Delta Air Lines has run the most reliable operation of any big U.S. airline.

It’s become a major selling point for the Atlanta-based carrier, which frequently touts its on-time performance rates. Delta also has regularly outperformed its chief rivals on other metrics, losing fewer bags than its main competitors and faring well in terms of the number of complaint submitted by customers.

Delta also likes to hang its hat on another reliability item: cancellations, or — more specifically — the lack of them. And Delta’s cancellation rate isn’t just low, it’s a fraction of what happens at other big airlines.

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But it's also led more than one industry observer to wonder: "Is Delta's extraordinarily low cancellation rate so good because it will delay flights for hours and hours instead of taking a cancellation?"

Related: Choosing the Best Credit Card for Delta Flyers

Could it be that Delta might have far fewer cancellations but more extra-long delays? Could Delta’s flight-completion supremacy be mostly semantics? After all, a passenger arriving 10 hours late probably doesn’t care whether a cancellation or massive delay was the cause.

TPG decided to turn to the data to get a better sense of what's going on.

AirlineCancellations per 100,000 mainline flights*
American1,623
Delta243
United760
*For the most recent 12 months available (March 2018 through February 2019); source: U.S. DOT data via Diio Mi

We looked at "extreme" delays, which — for the sake of our analysis — we defined as 10 hours or more.

TPG used for an extensive analysis of a year’s worth of delayed and canceled flights. We wanted to determine if Delta achieves its historically low levels of flight cancellations by being extraordinarily… well… patient, to be charitable — or stubborn, to be less charitable — about cancelling flights.

The short answer: No.

Related: Delta Air Lines Says Boston Is Now One of Its Hub Cities

Nonetheless, the details are rather interesting. Delta does record what is perhaps a surprising number of 10-hour delays, considering its otherwise-industry-leading operational statistics. But these extraordinarily long delays don’t explain most of the differential between Delta and its peers.

Turning again to the data, the average Delta mainline flight (i.e., flights actually operated by Delta and not by a subsidiary or partner regional airline) is delayed by fewer minutes than the average American or United mainline flight:

AirlineAverage departure delay in minutes*
American9.2
Delta6.5
United9.7
*For the most recent 12 months available (March 2018 through February 2019); source: U.S. DOT data via Diio Mi

This is unsurprising for an airline that generally performs better by all operational metrics. But the number of flights that were delayed more than 10 hours? That’s a more surprising story:

AirlineDelays of 10 hours or more per 100,000 flights*
American77
Delta81
United65
*For the most recent 12 months available (March 2018 through February 2019); source: U.S. DOT data via Diio Mi

The difference isn’t dramatic, especially compared to American. But it is noteworthy for the question it begs: "Why is it that Delta obliterates the competition in other areas, yet it’s not even No. 1 or No. 2 in this area?"

First, it's important to note that the long-delay statistic does not merit adding an asterisk to Delta’s flight-completion superiority. Even if every one of Delta's 81 10-hour delays per 100,000 flights had been canceled, Delta would still have canceled fewer than half as many flights per 100,000 as United, and fewer than one in five compared to American.

But, more broadly, is Delta simply just dragging out delays to report a few more cancellation-free days than might otherwise be the case?

Delta says no.

Related: Delta Brings Cocktails, Hot Towels and Better Food to International Economy

According to the airline, when it delays flights for many hours, it does so because that’s the best of bad options.

“Our focus on how we operate our airline is ultimately reflective of what our customers have told us they want in an airline,” Delta spokesman Michael Thomas told TPG.

And, remember: A 10-hour delay doesn’t mean all customers on the flight end up arriving at their destinations 10 hours late. That's because Delta agents and the company's automated systems try to find better options for customers in the meantime. That means, for example, a delayed passenger might get switched onto a flight that was scheduled later, but will now depart earlier than the passenger's original flight. A flight that’s severely delayed — but not canceled — also can serve as backstop protection for passengers: At least they still have confirmed seats to their destination while looking for better options, rather than having to fight for seats on other flights.

In other words, never root for a cancellation, even if the alternative is a very long delay.

Related: Trip Delay Reimbursement and the Credit Cards That Offer It

Two pieces of advice when your flight on any airline is canceled or severely delayed:

  • Help the airline help you by being proactive and telling agents how flexible you can be, particularly regarding alternative airports. These days, airline systems do a decent job of automatically finding you the next available seat to the same airport. Sometimes you might even be offered nearby airports — say, New York LaGuardia instead of Newark. But if you wouldn’t mind flying to Philadelphia if that gets you close to where you’re going a lot earlier, tell that to an airline agent.
  • This is another good reason (in addition to sometimes saving money) why you can benefit from packing light and not checking bags when possible. When your flight to San Francisco cancels and you ask if you can run across the hall to jump on a flight to Oakland, the first question an agent will often ask you is: “Did you check a bag?” That’s because there might be just enough time to run to the gate but not enough time for baggage handlers to pull your bag from the original flight and re-route it.

For now, though, Delta passengers can mostly take comfort that a cancellation is not very likely.

Featured image by Getty Images