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Travel Detective Blog: Anatomy of a Mismanaged Flight

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Have you ever taken a flight where you’re delayed for just as long or longer than your flying time? It’s not always weather delaying  a flight. Sometimes you can get hit by a perfect storm of bad decisions. In his latest Travel Detective blog, Peter takes a look at the complete anatomy of a mismanaged flight.

Consider these facts: I held a reservation on United Flight 841, the nonstop flight scheduled to leave at 2:51 pm from New York’s JFK to LAX. When I arrived at the airport, the departure board showed the plane as “on time” from gate number 10.

Since I believe that departure boards haven’t told the truth since about 1947, I always look at the arrivals board to see first if the plane assigned to my flight is actually at the gate. It was.

“No air traffic control delays? I asked. None.

“No weather delays?” Nope.

I picked this flight for a reason. If you want to fly anywhere from JFK between 7 am and 3:30 pm, you usually won’t find any air traffic congestion or delays. It’s only when the international flights start landing after 3 pm that things can go quickly from good to bad to worse. And by 5:30 pm JFK has turned into a parking lot. So a flight departing at 2:51 pm is getting out just before things get nasty. That is, of course, if it’s on time. And I was assured, both at the counter and then at the gate, that flight 841 was departing on time.

It was a full flight, but boarding was fast. We started at 2:20 pm and by 2:35 pm we were all in our seats.

At 2:45 pm I saw the ground crew assembling and it appeared we might even push back early.

Not so fast. Then came a surprise announcement. We were missing the pilot and copilot — they were flying in from Washington Dulles, and they were delayed. And so, flight 841 was taking a two-hour delay while we waited for the cockpit crew. And to make matters worse, United made us get off the plane.

So, just a few questions and observations here, which NO ONE at United could answer on the ground or even on the phone when I called them.

  1. What did the airline know, and when did they know this? The airline clearly knew there was no cockpit crew, and yet they still boarded the plane, thereby diminishing — or in my case — eliminating my options for other flights. Why would you ever board a flight at JFK knowing the flight crew assigned to that flight hadn’t even left Washington, D.C.?
  2. When they told us we were taking a two-hour delay, that’s ALL the information they told us. No word to anxious passengers about their connecting flights or, in my case, a realistic assessment of what time we MIGHT be taking off– or landing. And here’s the funny thing. an hour after we were delayed, the departure boards still showed the flight as leaving “on time.” My point about not depending on departure boards confirmed!
  3. Once again, the two-hour delay was not accurate information. I checked and the cockpit crew was actually not scheduled to land at JFK from Dulles until 4:35 pm Assuming their transfer time, that meant they couldn’t get to the plane until 5 pm and we wouldn’t be taking off until 5:30 pm. But even that was a false assumption. We reboarded the plane at 4:40 pm. The pilots finally arrived at 5 pm and even THEY realized the absurdity of scheduling crews to commute from Dulles to JFK. In his in-flight announcement, the pilot apologized for the delay and added that it would have been faster had he driven from D.C. He said we would be leaving momentarily

But we didn’t push back until 5:40 pm. And, as predicted, JFK had become its expected late afternoon parking lot. We were behind a long line of planes — Air Berlin, Finnair, Air China, Jet Blue, a few from Delta, and many others, each waiting to get to runway 22Right.

We waited another 45 minutes, and finally were airborne at 6:25, more than three and a half hours late. The final chapter of the flight….we touched down on runway 25L at lax at 8:45pm, nearly three hours late. But the story isn’t over. We were delayed getting to the gate by departing traffic on runway 25R and then a long 45 minute wait for luggage to start arriving on carousel 1 at baggage claim. Total delay for flight 841: four hours and ten minutes.

But, the real problem is that NO ONE from United was communicating anything to the passengers. No passengers were being given enough information to be able to at least consider options. And in my case, my drinks and dinner appointments had to be canceled on the only night I could have done them.

The lessons learned here:

  1. Never trust departure boards
  2. Always ask if the crew for your flight is based in that city. If not, it pays to book the very first flight of the day, because that almost always means your crew — no matter what their base, as well as your aircraft — overnighted in your city the night before.
  3. Before you ever board your flight, ask if the cockpit crew is already onboard.

And the bottom line here is that all of this was avoidable. Crew scheduling was operating without any reserve New York crew on a high volume Sunday. Operations knew there was a problem but never alerted that staff at the gate. And no one alerted the passengers.

The key to any successful trip is when you have options. the airlines, it seems, either by design or stupidity– or both — seem determined to take your options away at every opportunity. Flight 841 was a glaring example of that.

For more information on flight delays, check out:

By Peter Greenberg for

Image credit: Wikimedia, user Blane