With flight delays and cancellations dominating the news in the aftermath of the Icelandic volcano eruption, we became curious about flight delays in general and how travelers can be smarter when planning travel to reduce delay-induced stress and inconvenience. We caught up with Evan Konwiser, a co-founder at FlightCaster. FlightCaster is an aviation analytics company that mines data sources to predict flight delays, and it’s the product of Evan’s knack for algorithms and his experience commuting up and down the east coast as a consultant for Bain & Company. Evan and his business partner Jason Freedman created FlightCaster to provide advance warning of flight delays so travelers can mitigate the impact of delays while enjoying improved peace of mind. Here’s what Evan has to say:
NileGuide (NG): How common are flight delays?
Evan Konwiser (EK): Data from the Department of Transportation and other industry reports shows that in the US, about 25% of flights are delayed or canceled. In 2009 that was a bit lower (20%) because in recessionary times fewer planes are flying, but that percentage should climb as the economy picks up. The main causes for delays break down into thirds. Airline-related things such as crew logistics and mechanics account for just under a third of delays. Late-arriving aircrafts cause about one third of delays, and weather and congestion accounts for the final third. However, generally speaking, weather is the biggest cause because weather influences the majority of late arrivals. Analytically, weather conditions account for more than a half of all delays in the US.
NG: What is the average length of a delay, meaning are typical delays one hour, or several hours?
EK: Technically speaking, a delay is anything over 15 minutes. About one quarter of all delays last for over an hour, and three quarters are between 15 minute and an hour. Then of course you have the outliers; on average about 40,000 flights are delayed more than three hours each year in the US, which accounts for 3% of all delays.
NG: Any advice on what I can do if my flight is delayed?
EK: It all depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you’re delayed and choose to wait it out, you can set your expectations appropriately and come prepared with magazines and snacks for the airport. Never underestimate the power of re-setting expectations; if you know you’re in for a long delay and can prepare mentally ahead of time, stress levels go down significantly. If you have the ability to switch flights, you have a several options. One common choice is to try for a standby seat on a different flight with the same airline, and if you know far enough in advance you could even fly standby on an earlier flight. Delays get worse as the day goes on, so the earlier the flight the better. On the other end of the re-booking spectrum, you can switch to another carrier or through a different connecting city to navigate around a delay. Also keep in mind that if you are flying to a city with multiple airports, you can look into flights at secondary airports because generally delays are airport specific. For example, travelers to San Francisco can also look into Oakland and San Jose.
NG: What can travelers keep in mind when booking their flights to minimize the risk of delays? For example, are there certain types of flights – mid-week, non-stop, etc. – that tend to be delayed less?
EK: When it comes down to it, it’s really about traffic. Air travel is similar to car travel in the sense that you don’t want to take congested highways, especially in bad weather. So if you can help it, avoid airports that are known for poor weather and avoid high-traffic times such as early evenings during the week. As I mentioned previously, flying earlier in the day also helps because delays get worse as the day goes on. The likelihood of getting delayed on the last flight out is six times higher than with the first flight of the day. As far as specific airports to be aware of, delays are concentrated in the major New York area airports, as well as Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Chicago (O’Hare).
NG: What can travelers do to find out about delays in advance?
EK: The first thing you want to do is make sure you’ll get an alert as soon as an airport announces a delay. You can sign up directly through the airline, or through a third-party service like FlightStats or TripIt (which uses FlightStats data). Keep in mind that data channels are messy so signing up with multiple sources is not a bad idea, but even that can fall short when it comes to “advance” warning. For about 75% of flights that will have a major delay, the airline only tells passengers within an hour of the flight. That was a major pain point for me when I worked as a consultant, so we started FlightCaster to give travelers warnings even sooner. If you have delay info hours ahead of flight, you can do something proactively. We look at factors that might cause delays and analyze them in advance. For example, you can look at weather and where a flight is coming from to make a prediction before the airline announces anything officially. We provide probabilities, so there are always times when things look bad and then they won’t happen. But, for business travelers who’d rather have peace of mind and just change their flight immediately if problems are possible, or for average travelers that can get on the phones earlier to investigate their options in case of a delay, it can mean the difference between getting a seat on another flight and not. As a traveler, just having the ability to plan can reduce stress levels tremendously and offer significantly improved peace of mind.
NG: If you could be delayed in any airport around the world which one would you choose and why?
EK: Internationally I’d choose Singapore. It’s known as the number-one airport in the world because it has malls, unbelievable food, entertainment, and hotels, and it’s just a beautiful space. People enjoy spending time there. Amsterdam also has a lot of amenities and is very comfortable. Conversely, I’d never want to get stuck in Heathrow! In the US, I love the Denver airport. It’s new, spacious, and has great food and shopping. It also has plenty of places to relax and take in views of the Rockies – a magnificent setting on high planes that has a soothing effect. It’s hard to be stressed there.
NG: What is the best time-waster for the airport if my flight is delayed?
EK: Personally, I like to watch planes land and take off. I never tire of that. For the less aviation-inclined, there’s always shopping and eating. Surprisingly, airports can also be a great way to get exercise in between flights. They are very large so there is plenty of room for walking around. I even came across a Web site the other day called airportgyms.com that has free listings of airport gyms and exercise clubs. Another thing I always tell people is they shouldn’t feel obliged to stick around the gate. Airports have lots of neat little nooks and crannies, and the gate can be the most stressful location of them all. Just make sure you’re back in time for the flight.
NG: Are there certain airlines that are known for having fewer delays?
EK: Yes and no. Some airlines consistently do better simply because of where they fly. For example, Hawaiian Airlines is consistently the most on-time in US, but it only flies in and out of Hawaii so things such as congested connector airports or unpredictable foreign climates aren’t major factors. Among coast-to-coast carriers in US, Southwest does very well in ranking versus legacy airlines, but that’s also a function of the airports they fly into and out of. I once compared Southwest to United for only the routes they have in common, and United destroyed Southwest in on-time performance.