Dissecting Delays: What they Mean

More often than not when I’m working a flight that’s delayed I spot some unhappy passengers as the news is conveyed over the PA on the plane or through the terminal. For the most part, that reaction is truly unwarranted. In the airline industry when a flight is delayed is usually means that something is wrong, somewhere. Generally, you’re delayed because the airline cannot get you to your destination safely at the present moment, but is working through the issue.

There are various types of delays and each one comes with its own set of issues and problems and sometimes the fix is out of the airlines control and all you can do is sit and wait.

Mechanical Delay. This is an easy one. The plane has a mechanical issue that needs to be resolved before it can safely become airborne. Now a days, airplanes fly themselves so mechanical delays can be caused by a physical piece of the airplane, a discrepancy in the cabin which the F.A.A. requires to be fixed before flight or a computer malfunction. Computers power almost all of the newer aircraft out there today. An error message in the flight deck can easily cause a delay depending on what error and what section of the aircraft it’s referencing. I once had a mechanical in which a passenger asked me: “couldn’t they have found this before? Why now?” to which my simple answer to explain the situation was: “It’s like your computer at home.. It starts up.. It moves.. But once it gets going.. You get that ‘Illegal Operation’ message and the whole thing shuts down. Sometimes you don’t find a problem until you’re underway.” If you’re lucky though, the delay will be found at the gate and you can comfortably await a fix while in the terminal. However, a mechanical delay doesn’t reflect poorly on an airlines safety record and the news of the delay should be taken in stride. They’re ensuring the aircraft is operational so you get there safely. Isn’t that reason not to complain?

“Flow Control,” “ATC Delay,” or “Ground Delay Program (GDP”) This is a delay which rattles my nerves all the time, and I know what causes it. A “GDP” goes into effect when an airport is congested usually due to weather. When weather strikes an airport the rate of arriving aircraft has to be decreased to ensure each of them have ample time to safely descend and clear the runway. When you decrease the rate of arrivals, aircraft stay airborne longer “holding” until it’s their time to land. Well, those aircraft headed to this destination whom have not yet left their departure airport are put on a “GDP” and held on the ground until a pre-determined time (set by Air Traffic Control, not the airline) where it can safely take-off, hold if they need to (with ample fuel) and land safely. These delays are frustrating for everyone, including flight attendants because we’re not paid for this extra time on the ground even though we’re “working.” Sometimes if the delay is issued far enough in advance you will be notified in the terminal but it the GDP issuance can also occur after boarding in which case you may be asked to deplane or, if the delay isn’t that long, they will close the door and push back so that the flight crew can begin getting paid. These delays are not fixable by the airline.

Catering Delay. You have to have water right? Well most airlines contract their catering out to other vendors such as LSG SkyChefs or GateGourmet and these companies cater for more than one flight leaving at almost the same time. On occasion it does happen were the flight is boarded and ready to push away but they’re holding for the catering truck to deliver supplies to the flight attendants so that they can deliver a beverage and food service to you.

Crew Rest Delay. This delay usually ends with passengers saying to me: “Did you get enough sleep?” Flight Attendants and pilots are required to have a minimum of 8 hours on the ground “resting” every night. Mind you, “resting” is in quotes because the literal meaning of “rest” is not being used. The way the regulation is written flight crewmembers just require 8 hours from the time the plane blocks in the night before until the time the plane pushes back the next day. That’s our “rest.” Sometimes though GDP’s and mechanical delays will delay our arrival into a city long enough that it decreased our rest time under the 8 hour limit. At that point, the flight we work out the next morning is put on a “crew rest delay” to account for the extra time we are required to have on the ground. Passengers don’t usually understand this delay and make remarks to flight crew about how little sleep they themselves had the night before but they still managed to show up on time. Please realize if this happens to you, you’re not delayed because the crew wanted to sleep in, you’re delayed because the F.A.A. requires them to be on the ground for 8 hours after a duty period.

Gate Hold. This delay is different than a GDP. Gate holds are issued when the traffic on the taxiways at an airport begins to build and becomes jammed. This usually occurs at airports with many international flights and domestic flights all scheduled around the same time. The hold just means that a plane cannot push back from the gate until an air traffic control operator in the tower clears the plane to do so. These delays usually don’t go over 30-40 minutes, but bad weather can extend these delays.

Now that I’ve given you a quick “behind the scenes” of some of the more common delays, I’m curious to find out what delays you’ve encountered during your travels. How was the delay explained and how was the news received? If you encountered a delay and you’re confused at what it meant feel free to post a comment below and I’ll explain it the best I can!


Bobby Laurie

Bobby Laurie, author of the book Planely Speaking and television travel correspondent, currently works as a Flight Attendant at a low-cost airline and as a freelance journalist. After graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Technology with a degree in Mass Media Communication, Bobby combined his passion for both journalism and travel by writing about the travel industry through his insider knowledge and personal experiences. You can read Bobby's blog about being a flight attendant and the airline industry by visiting


  1. 4 years ago

    I once experienced a mechanical delay in Hawaii where they had to fly in new parts for the plane from another island. We were delayed for a good 5 hours and the vast majority of people absolutely lost their heads and demanded to be put on other flights to go home. I felt awful for the customer service people (and who doesn’t want to be stuck in Hawaii???). The airline was kind enough to give us vouchers for lunch and dinner in the terminal and since my family and I just waited patiently we each ended up with an entire row to ourselves on the now red eye flight home. I had a great nap :)

    • 4 years ago
      Bobby Laurie

      Patience does pay off! Who doesn’t want a whole row to sleep in on a redeye!?

    • 4 years ago

      I have had just about every one of these types of delays. I had a delay flying Honolulu to SFO a few years back. We boarded, closed up and pushed back. Then an engine failed to start properly. It ultimately resulted in a cancellation. By the time they could get the parts, the crew would be over the limit. The crew had already worked the inbound flight from SFO that morning.

      Many people were livid, and I admit I was not happy when I stopped at an adjacent gate and was told that she could not help me. They told us to exit security and reclaim our checked bags and then go to the ticket counter to rebook.

      While I was walking out to the ticket counter, I calmed myself down and got on the phone with the airline. The offer most people were getting was a red-eye on a different airline. I asked if I could stay with my preferred airline. It was also going to be a red-eye on a less desirable aircraft, with a connection in LAX, but I was able to get exit row seats instead of middle seats. When I got to the ticket counter, the agent started in about the red-eye on the other airline. I said that I had spent some time on the phone and was going to stay with this airline. I just needed some help to finalize the reservation and get boarding passes. She smiled and said great. She typed away for a few minutes and then handed me first class boarding passes on both segments. This was nice as I had been upgraded on the canceled flight, and it had the business class sleeper seats.

  2. 4 years ago

    My United flight from ORD to DFW was delayed yesterday for a short hour for a ‘facilities’ related problem. They explained
    the bridge to the aircraft was not straight and we were waiting to get it adjusted. Help never came so we boarded the aircraft with the uneven bridge and were just asked to be careful.

    Seems odd they waited for an hour and simply disregard the problem once help never came.

    • 4 years ago
      Bobby Laurie

      That is strange. Was it uneven to the point where maybe a passenger in a wheelchair may not have been able to board? That may have been it, and they may have found another way of boarding them?

    • 4 years ago
      J.T. Wenting

      boarding wheelchair bound passengers when there’s no appropriate jetway is a no-brainer.
      At several airports we’ve seen it happen, and it’s easy.
      Simply put, the wheelchair and passenger are placed either in a catering truck or a luggage lift, and it’s raised to the level of the aircraft door.

      Of course in a lawsuit prone country like the US there might be problems with such “undocumented use of equipment”, but I’m sure something can be figured out to make it possible without getting sued for billions if someone stubs their toe.

  3. 4 years ago
    J.T. Wenting

    The main problem is that passengers have been lied to so often by airlines when it comes to delays, cancellations, etc. that they no longer believe the announcements even if they’re clearly true.

    One example: Several years ago I suffered a 12 hour overnight delay at London Heathrow on a flight to Amsterdam (a 30 minute flight…).
    Flight was supposed to leave at 20:00, boarding at 19:30. We got no announcement at all about the flight until 22:00, at which point it was announced there was a slight weather delay.
    Then at 22:30 that became a mechanical problem, until the flight was cancelled at 23:00.
    Passengers were herded towards a counter, we were put in a hotel on the airport (good choice, but could have been made hours earlier).
    At 06:00 next morning we had to board a bus again to go back to the airport for the flight, this time there was an aircraft.
    The only compensation we got at all were a drink and breakfast voucher for the hotel restaurant, which was closed by the time we got to the hotel and not yet open by the time we had to leave again.

    Last year’s experience at Amsterdam for a flight to Spain was only slightly better. 6 hour delay, after 4 hours we get a 1.50 Euro drink voucher for a restaurant where even a glass of water costs 4 Euro.
    Next, not 10 minutes before boarding starts they start handing out 10 Euro dinner vouchers for the same restaurant, in full knowledge that noone will be able to use them, and only to people already at the gate, there was no announcement on the PA, neither was there a boarding announcement or an announcement of the 3 gate changes, at one point the flight was listed as boarding soon at 2 gates at the same time.

    And that’s typical of the experience most people have with airlines and how they handle delays.

  4. 4 years ago

    Great post, Bobby! Tweeting now to help spread the word.

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