Delays don’t happen often, but when they do, they are a source of great aggravation and concern.
The airlines are all about customer service—or at least they are supposed to be. Most of the time, things go pretty much as advertised, but some days, for whatever reason, they don’t. Examples might be missing blankets, bundles of paper towels, broken toilets, or a catering screw-up. Catering can consist of the sodas and snacks in the main cabin, or it can consist of issues with the meals that are served in first class—which the first-class passengers have paid for and have every right to expect.
Flight attendants are required to be on duty at the majors ahead of the pilots, because boarding can start without us. In fact, on larger airplanes, this is pretty common in order to get everyone on board expeditiously for an on-time departure. Part of that early arrival is to give the cabin crew time to spot any issues as quickly as possible. It might be something mundane like some trash, or it might be something more serious such as broken seat belts or missing or damaged emergency equipment. Some of these things are obviously show-stoppers, like the emergency equipment, but most items can be deferred for later maintenance or addressed quickly with a phone call.
Catering, on the other hand, always takes time, because there are only so many catering trucks, and they don’t always have what you need. Hot meals are a great example. There isn’t much worse than having the flight attendants announce that the expected dinner is going to be replaced by breakfast, or vice versa, or that coffee won’t be available (I might be the only one that doesn’t get concerned about this, since I’ve never had coffee, but I’ve seen what happens when people don’t get it, and it ain’t pretty).
Sometimes, no matter how many times you plead on the radio with Operations, things just aren’t going to get fixed. At that point, the decision often comes down to what the flight attendants want to do, since they’re the ones who have to deal with the passengers directly. An announcement over the public address system can help, as can a personal explanation to those most affected.
Most of the time, if the flight isn’t too terribly long, the decision is made to close the door and go. Longer flights require a little more tact and thought.
Airlines have collected extensive amounts of data on just what the paying passenger expects, and as much as we all like to complain when things don’t go our way, the number one issue for passengers is getting to the destination on time. Not only is that most important, but the gap between on-time performance and every other expectation is huge. Further, when an airplane leaves the gate late, the risk is that the flight inbound to that gate is going to be delayed, and the airplane may fall behind schedule for the rest of the day. It’s one thing to be late for maintenance, but to be late for some missing meals or bottles of water is a different issue entirely.
The other form of delays that cause problems are delays off the gate going to or from the runway (going to seems to be much worse). Most of the time, these are driven by bad weather or a ground stop. It helps when the weather is right on the airport and can be seen. Passengers don’t always understand that the bad weather affecting a flight may be several hundred miles away.
Most carriers encourage openness and honesty with people when delays of any kind hit, but ground stops and weather delays are definitely no place to try and pull a fast one. In the day and age when everyone has a smart phone, you can expect that people are looking up delay data either from the FAA or from your airlines app. Consistent with safety and your company policy, keeping passengers updated with a PA every 15 to 30 minutes will go a long way to keeping people from getting restless, especially first-time or nervous fliers. You can’t do anything about potential missed connections, but you can keep them informed of any progress or updates from ATC. These announcements should be short, factual, and devoid of any jargon. Humor can go wrong, so don’t use it unless you know how.
The risk with a departure delay is that someone may insist they want to get off the airplane if they’re going to miss a connection or an event, or just get nervous. This can be a tricky situation, because sometimes going back to the gate can lead to such a delay that the flight cancels and everyone gets inconvenienced. Often, continuing toward takeoff is the lesser evil. But if they insist, the captain needs to coordinate with Dispatch to make the best decision.
Delays after landing pose their own issues. I’ve been on time or early during the beginning of a weather event, only to sit in a penalty box for an hour or more waiting for a gate to open up. International flights present a particular challenge because only certain gates are set up to funnel passengers to Customs and Immigration, and this is something that needs to be articulated to the passengers.
Other gate delays are usually (but not always) driven by weather affecting the outgoing flights. Passengers, however, start getting antsy when they feel trapped. Again, good PAs will help, as will conveying any developing situations in the cabin to Operations so that they can appreciate the seriousness of what is going on.
Delays are a part of flying for both passengers and crew. How you handle them is key. Communication is everything: the flight attendants, the passengers, and the company. You may not win all of the battles or make everyone happy, but you’ll greatly improve the odds, which will improve the odds of ensuring repeat business.