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Delta and cancelled flights

the tail of an airplane

A couple days ago the Wall Street Journal published an article by Scott McCartney about how Delta has the lowest cancellation rate in the industry.

Last year, Delta canceled just 0.3% of its flights, according to flight-tracking service FlightStats.com. That was twice as good as the next-best airlines, Southwest and Alaska, and five times better than the industry average of 1.7%.

But what is better, a delay or a cancelled flight?

If there are no other options a cancelled flight is horrible and I experienced a one on Delta already this year, but a cancelled flight also opens up avenues that a delayed flight does not.  A delayed flight gives you a false sense of security that you will make it to your destination but may be an hour or 2 late.  Easy enough, right?  If you have a ride meeting you at the airport you tell them to follow the airline’s website so they don’t wait at the airport for hours.  But in my experience a delay was never that cut-and-dry and usually there would be rolling delays.  They would list their best estimate for your departure based on a plane that hasn’t even left it’s current location yet.  Until that plane is in the air they really have no clue when you will leave.  Now, some people can use an excessive delay to call their corporate travel agent to get rebooked onto something better, but not all travelers can do that and I had to wait for a cancellation to get a new plan of attack.

Case in point Atlanta-Charlotte.  It’s about a 4- hour drive and often the cost of a rental was the same or cheaper than a hotel (since usually it’s weather issues and airlines do not provide hotels for those).  If I knew when I landed at 8:30 pm that my 10 pm flight was not going to fly out until 1 am or not at all I’m better off driving right that second and I’ll get home while I’m still safe to drive.  Usually the flight would list on-time until right before it was scheduled (often some light turned on during the inbound that they needed to “troubleshoot”).  The 30 minute delay would turn into an hour delay and into a 3-hour delay or rarely a cancellation.  I’m not about to start a 4-hour drive at 1 am because that’s unsafe and I’ll be super tired the next day so instead I try to find a hotel that is not already full from other people who knew their fate earlier.

So my point is that a cancellation can often mean more options are open.  Either you still have options on other airlines or you may have other methods to get to your destination.  I think it was 2010 or 2011 where I drove home from Atlanta more than 3 times.  National had a $70 one-way rental with no drop fee so even after $30 in gas it was often cheaper than a hotel and at that time of the night I didn’t have any other options.  If I hadn’t made it to Atlanta yet I often had a non-stop on US Airways I could hop onto and in 2012 I did that many times from IND-CLT when the IND-ATL flight went mechanical twice.

Overall, I’d prefer a 30 minute delay over a cancellation, but when it comes to rolling delays I start to get frustrated.