United’s taking flight delay explanations to the next level

Jan 21, 2020

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Nobody likes flight delays — unless you manage to score more time at a posh resort or high-end airport lounge, perhaps — but one airline in particular has been doing a top-notch job of curbing some uncertainty, at the very least.

With detailed delay notifications, United’s boosting transparency through its flight status page — specifically when it comes to airport operations. As a result, the carrier is able to ease customer concerns a bit, while also eliminating the need for flyers to constantly check in with agents at the gate, freeing them up to rebook flyers, or perhaps even hold the plane for travelers arriving on another delayed flight.

United’s been sharing detailed flight status information since 2018, but I’ve recently noticed that the airline’s delay and cancellation notifications have grown even more sophisticated, as I spotted for a flight from Newark (EWR) to Bogota (BOG):

The delays are manually written by a team United calls the “Storytellers.” Located at the carrier’s Network Operations Center (NOC) in Chicago, employees write detailed explanations for flights delayed over 60 minutes, as outlined in the first couple minutes of the below episode of the airline’s explainer series, Big Metal Bird.

When it came to the Bogota notification, as a tried-and-true aviation geek, I appreciated the detailed explanation, but craved a bit more. So I set out to investigate the delay on my own.

I discovered that Bogota El Dorado International Airport has a noise-abatement restriction in place between the hours of 10:00pm and 6:00am — essentially, aircraft aren’t allowed to fly low over certain neighborhoods, to avoid disturbing residents. As a result, all departing and landing planes need to use the north runway — 13L/31R — during the overnight hours, reducing the number of aircraft that can takeoff and land.

The flight in question, United 1068, has arrived roughly an hour behind schedule every day for weeks. And, for past flights, the airline is referencing “government restrictions that prevented flights from taking off or landing” as the cause of the delays, so it seemed likely that the Colombian authorities have assigned this flight a new landing time — at least temporarily.

Given the uncertainty here, and a consistent pattern of delays, I reached out to United to see if the airline had any more details to share. It turns out I actually stumbled upon an issue the carrier’s been dealing with for some time — as a representative explained:

“The Colombian Government issued an order limiting operations in Bogota during the time United operates flights. We are seeking a resolution from the Colombian Government on this issue as quickly as possible. We regret any inconvenience this issue has caused travelers and look forward to reinstating normal operations soon.”

So, ultimately, there was indeed more to the story here, though that’s perhaps a bit too much detail to include in a small text box on the flight status page.

Ideally, your flights will always go out on time. When they don’t, however, it’s helpful to have an idea of what’s going on — whether the delay is caused by a mechanical issue that resulted in an aircraft substitution, a customer service hold for connecting passengers or an especially long de-icing queue.

For more on what to do if your own travels are impacted by weather or other factors, be sure to check out our detailed guide.

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