Flight Delays: Recognize a Creeping Delay

Airline delays are a part of travelling, but there are some delays that are considerably worse than others. Many factors contribute to airline delays that are both within and completely out of the airline’s control. Regardless of the cause of any delay, it is an inconvenience for all of the passengers travelling on the delayed flight. Many of the delays that occur in the industry result in nothing more than a late arrival. Whatever has caused the delay is usually taken care of and the flight is still able to depart. These regular delays should raise little concern.

A good example of this is when an inbound aircraft was delayed thirty minutes due to weather, but is en route to its destination and the arrival time is known. In that case the next flight for the aircraft will probably be able to leave shortly after arriving at the airport. Another delay that should cause limited concern is when a flight crew is late arriving for their next trip. As long as the crew is on its way, and the delay is not over a couple of hours then the delayed flight will probably go shortly after the crew gets on the aircraft.

Once it has been determined that a flight will be delayed, the airline will typically post a new departure time. Many times the new estimated departure time is an optimistic time and may get pushed back more, but not significantly. If all of the contributing factors of the delay are easily fixed and steps are being taken to rectify them then there is generally little cause for alarm. The flight will be delayed, but will probably still get on its way.

A creeping delay is cause for greater concern. This type of delay could be caused by any number of factors, but they all look similar. If the airline delays a flight once, then continuously pushes the departure time back every 15 minutes then it’s a creeping delay. A creeping delay can get extended many times, hours on end, and sometimes will lead to a flight cancellation. If you notice that your flight is continuously getting delayed then you should be concerned. It’s time to get some answers and start looking at alternate options.

When you first notice your delayed flight, it is important to know what is causing the delay. You can contact your airline via phone if you’re not yet at the airport, check information on their mobile app or website, or talk direct with customer service if you are already at the airport. There is generally enough information available to understand what’s happening with your flight, and to make a good guess at the actual departure time.


If your flight is delayed you should be asking these questions of the airline:


  • Why is this flight delayed?
    • Late Inbound Aircraft?
      • Where is the plane?
      • Is it En route?
    • Weather?
      • Where is the weather delay
      • Will it affect our ability to fly
    • No flight Crew?
      • Is the crew local or inbound?
      • Are there crew legality issues when they arrive?
    • Aircraft Maintenance?
      • Are the parts available for the fix?
      • Is another aircraft available in case of the original being inoperable?
      • Estimated time for the fix?
    • When is the new departure time?
    • Are further delays anticipated?
      • Other factors may create additional issues

See the best ways to contact your airline here!

Late Inbound Aircraft

You will get this answer more often than not. This just means that the aircraft was delayed at some point in its travel day, or it was switched and rerouted for a different flight. The original delay typically creates a domino effect that causes the aircraft to be delayed for every flight that it’s scheduled to be on in that day. Most aircraft are on a tight schedule throughout the day. It’s rare that they stay on the ground for long. As long as the aircraft is airborne (en route) to your point or origin the odds are that you will be able to leave on the plane shortly after it arrives in your city. If the aircraft is stuck in a city for any reason and its departure time is continues to back up then you have a Creeping Delay situation and it is time to seek alternate options.



Weather Delays impact all airlines. The issue does not even have to be at your point of origin or destination. Weather issues worldwide could cause aircraft to be delayed in another city, creating a late departure for your origin, resulting in a delayed flight for you. If weather is causing your flight to be delayed and the aircraft is not en route or at your point of origin then you will probably have a Creeping Delay on your hands and its time to look for alternate options. The same goes for weather delays when the aircraft is sitting at the gate in your point of origin. The unpredictability of weather conditions causes several Creeping Delays. It’s best to act early to avoid getting stuck in an airport longer than you need to.


Flight Crew

Flight crews are limited to the number of hours they are allowed to work in one day. When a flight is delayed due to crew issues then it is usually because the flight crew is on its way from another airport. As long as their daily time has not been exceeded by the time your flight is ready to depart then the crew will be able to operate the flight.

Sometimes a flight crew will not get in until very late the evening. Before their next flight they are required to rest a minimum number of hours. When this occurs the flight will be delayed until the rest requirement is met and the crew is again legal to operate a flight. This situation often affects flights that are leaving early in the morning.

Most airlines will have pilots available on reserve for when delayed crews become illegal (allowable hours are exceeded and the crew is not eligible to operate a flight) to fly, to replace a crew that is delayed coming in, or to cover sick calls. If you are experiencing a crew delay then the airline may call reserve crew members to replace the originals. When reserves are called in you may have to wait awhile for them to arrive, but the flight will usually depart at some point.

If a crew delay is causing a flight to continuously push back its departure time, and it is unclear when the flight crew will be available then it is a Creeping delay and it is time to start preparing alternate options. Airlines do not always have reserves available, and if you’re waiting a long time for a crew then there is a chance that the crew will go illegal before the departure time and the flight will be canceled.



Maintenance delays can be very tricky. When there is a mechanical problem with an aircraft, it needs to be fixed before the aircraft can depart. There are some issues that can be deferred (checked out and the aircraft is still eligible to fly) by mechanics; these issues do not affect the airworthiness of the aircraft. If the problem is deferred then the aircraft is likely to depart soon. In cases where the issue is not deferrable then the problem must be fixed, regardless of how minor it appears to be. Some issues can be fixed quickly, but there are many issues that take a long time to fix.

Many times the aircraft mechanics will have to spend a lot of time just diagnosing the problem before they are able to fix it. Once the problem is diagnosed it may take a long time to get the issue taken care of. Often times the parts necessary will not be available at the airport and they must be flown in. Obviously this causes further delays. As a gate agent, maintenance was always the worst kind of delay to deal with. Often times a small and easily fixable problem would be identified, and upon further review of the issue, a larger maintenance issue would arise. A problem that was supposed to take twenty minutes to fix could often result in a one-hour or longer delay.

Although a delay is frustrating, everyone should appreciate the thoroughness of airline maintenance procedures. You want that aircraft to be functioning properly when it’s up in the air. There is no compromise to airline safety and that is a good thing for everyone who travels. Keep an eye on the delay and listen to updates about your flight. If the flight enters a Creeping Delay situation then you should start looking for other options.


Compounding Creeping Delays

When a delay occurs on a flight for any reason there is a potential for the delay to become worse as it will sometimes create other issues.

  • A one-hour maintenance delay late in the evening may cause the flight crew to become illegal. If no reserves are available then the flight could be canceled.
  • A late arriving aircraft makes it to the gate, but the weather at your destination has changed dramatically and the flight cannot depart until it clears. This could again lead to a crew issue.
  • The weather has caused long delays. When it has cleared just enough to depart the crew becomes illegal. Waiting for reserves creates a longer delay.

Any combination of the delay factors could contribute to a compound delay. One leads to another and flights are often canceled because of multiple factors. Dealing with creeping delays is very frustrating, but there are some things you can do to make sure you get out as soon as possible.

Check out the second part of this article to learn to deal with a Creeping Delay. Click Here!


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