How Do Pilots Make Up Time En Route After a Flight Delay?

Sometimes flights take off late but still arrive on time. Here’s how pilots make that happen.

Airplane in a blue sky, seen from below

Pilots and their aviation team have some power to make up for lost time when a flight takes off late.

Courtesy of Pixabay

If you feel like flights are running behind more often than before, you’re not wrong. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics—an agency that keeps detailed records of all U.S. domestic flights—reports that 21.6 percent of flights in 2023 (through April) were delayed. That’s the highest level since 2014. The criterion for a “delay,” if you were wondering, is if a flight arrives or departs 15 minutes or more after the scheduled time.

For summer travelers, a slew of delays in recent weeks snarled airports from coast to coast. And future slowdowns are inevitable. So let’s say your upcoming flight from New York to Los Angeles is delayed, perhaps due to bad weather affecting air traffic at JFK. After you board an hour later than scheduled, the plane finally taxis to the runway. On the speaker, the pilot announces to everyone that they will try to make up for the lost time. But what does that really mean?

A common thought many passengers have is that the pilot must simply speed up to recoup that time, putting the pedal to the metal like in a car. However, it doesn’t really work like that, says Ryan Irwin, a pilot with 10 years of experience for an international airline. “Making up lost time can be tough for pilots, as we can only theoretically fly at certain maximum speeds.” While the plane may be able to go slightly faster, additional fuel burn has to be taken into consideration—and in many cases, it’s not worth it to the airline’s bottom line.

Instead of speeding up—which would only save a few minutes at best on that New York to Los Angeles route anyway—there are other tactics the pilot (and airline) can employ. First, the pilot can act as the eyes and ears of the flight. Think of them as a conductor, working with both air traffic control and the airline’s operation center to (ideally) get to your destination faster. “When faced with delays, we can potentially orchestrate the many different departments to come together and expedite departure processes,” Irwin says. In other words, the teams can use their various tools to find earlier takeoff or landing slots, or shift the plane’s airway path into a more direct route. If the pilot can choreograph an earlier landing slot within an airport’s congested airspace, that can save valuable minutes.

But while a late-arriving aircraft can trigger logistical implications for the rest of the day’s flights, not to mention a poor impression from a customer service standpoint, there’s only so much a pilot can do. Irwin notes that if every late flight tried to take advantage of all the potential time-saving techniques, it could make things worse. “By going against an already well-oiled machine and airline schedule, it could potentially be disruptive to the wider operation.”

There may be certain instances where making up for a delay is prioritized, though—say, at an airline’s hub where a tight operational schedule is imperative for flight connections. On the airline side, planners who create schedules help by baking in time for a slew of variables—such as runway traffic and congested airspace—with what is called “schedule padding.” It’s why that six-hour transcontinental flight may only spend five hours of time actually flying.

By being the maestro of the skies, pilots can employ varying techniques to assist in clawing back valuable minutes. But don’t expect them to be miracle workers—if that one-hour delay stretches to four, it’s not getting erased, no matter how hard they try.

Chris Dong is a freelance travel writer and editor with a focus on timely travel trends, points and miles, hot new hotels, and all things that go (he’s a proud aviation geek and transit nerd).
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