Forget the departure boards and airline apps — here’s how you can get ahead of a delay.
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Airplane Flight Landing
Credit: David Nunuk/Getty Images

We've all been there — standing at the airport gate, looking forlornly at the empty space at the end of the jet bridge, knowing that there is no possible way that your flight is going to have an on-time departure. Perhaps the plane hasn't even arrived, and yet, the airline still hasn't announced a delay.

Flight delays are, unfortunately, woven into the fabric of travel. But it turns out they're actually somewhat predictable — if you know where to look. Plus, learning about a delay in advance could relieve a little bit of the stress you develop when you're otherwise left in the dark until the last minute by your airline.

"The most obvious clue, of course, is checking the weather," airline pilot Patrick Smith of Ask the Pilot tells Travel + Leisure. Naturally, if your departure airport is experiencing bad weather, there's a solid chance your flight could be delayed. "There are, however, lots of variables here," adds Smith. "Some hubs are more prone to delays than others. A few inches of snow in Denver or Detroit aren't a big deal. Snow in Washington or Dallas, on the other hand, can cause problems."

But weather is only one reason a flight might be delayed. American carriers must detail the cause of their delays to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), which publishes a monthly report of that information. In 2021, weather caused roughly a quarter of each month's delays on average. Other causes include the late arrival of an aircraft due to a previous delay (this is the most common cause of flight delays), maintenance or crew issues, and heavy traffic.

"Knowing the plane's inbound status is a huge clue to how its outbound status might be affected," says Smith, acknowledging those late arrivals. "Some airline websites and apps allow you to track the whereabouts of the plane you'll be taking."

In the case of Delta, you can tap "Where's My Plane?" within the airline's app to see the current status of your aircraft on its inbound flight. Or, you can try a third-party program such as FlightAware to track the same information. If the flight before yours is delayed, the odds are yours might be delayed, too. 

When it comes to delays dictated by the National Airspace System (NAS), including those as a result of non-extreme weather and traffic, the details are not only provided to pilots and air traffic controllers, but they're also made available to the public. The issue is that information can be a little complicated to decipher, as it's usually a jumble of letters and numbers that doesn't make sense to the average person.

That's where flight-tracking programs step in. The app Flighty, for example, is specifically designed to pull all the available data about your flight, decode and interpret it, and alert you to any potential issues that might affect your departure. "What the airline is trying to do is delay the flight as little as possible, as late as possible. And what we're trying to do is tell the truth as soon as possible," Flighty's founder and CEO, Ryan Jones, tells T+L.

While you can certainly look up all the information on your own, that takes a bit of effort — you have to check multiple sources several times in the lead-up to departure. Flighty automates that process for you. "We watch everything that is happening with the plane up to 25 hours in advance and tell you if you need to care," says Jones. The app, which has both a free version and a premium one that costs $5.99 per month or $49.99 per year, notifies you not only about delays, but also about details like gate changes, which sometimes aren't announced at the airport until the last minute.

Even if you can't do anything to change the fact that your flight is delayed, simply being aware of what's going on might be able to bring you a little bit of comfort. Or, if you have a severe delay, advanced knowledge could even give you a leg up on rebooking on another flight. At the very least, you'll know whether or not you have time for another drink in the lounge before you need to head to your gate.