We've all been there. It's either on the flight information screen flashing "DELAYED" or a gate agent, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we are sorry to inform you your fight has been delayed."
But what's the real deal? Is it weather, aircraft maintenance or something more?
Last week I had to deal with an event that was in the "something more" category.
Originally scheduled to fly to a European city (name changed to protect the innocent), the weather turned nasty about an hour before our departure. And by nasty, I mean I think I saw the house from The Wizard of Oz. Thunderstorms, a bow echo and sideways rain.
Of course, the gate agents only said it would be a short delay. Being near the gate I had to hide my laughter or else a passenger might have seen me!
Airline pilots are governed by FAA rules that limit how much time we can spend on duty. If we didn't have rules the company would push us to the limits of complete exhaustion, which would severely decrease safety. Knowing this, the FAA has set a minimum standard of time on duty.
About 3 hours into our delay I knew we were going to approach and bust through this limit. I had a sneaking suspicion the flight was going to be canceled.
Operations, or the airline people at the airport who try to make decisions, decided to board the flight even though they knew were were approaching this FAA limit and we weren't going to be able to push back for another couple hours.
It was all good...for the first 45 minutes on board. After that, people started asking questions. Of course I already knew we busted past our "duty day", as it's called, and was packing up my stuff to head home.
From what I learned, from friends at the airport who were working later flights, the aircraft didn't actually de-plane (what we call getting off the airplane, in airline-speak) until about 2 hours later. Operations thought they'd be able to get another set of pilots to the plane, which of course never happened due to low staffing levels.
So the next time you're delayed due to weather, look up front to the cockpit - your pilots may be already at home!