a row of seats in an airplane

“Oh no, our flight is delayed an hour.”

“No, it’s delayed about two hours, trust me. We can finish dessert.”

This was the conversation I had recently with friends and family visiting us in Palm Springs, California. A series of unusual weather events across the US wreaked havoc on the system and headwinds along with it, causing a rise in flight delays.

No one likes a flight delay, obviously, but what people really don’t like is feeling like they’re getting suckered. Quite often, that’s exactly what happens with airline delay estimates.

If you’d like to be among the informed crowd who can almost pinpoint the perfect arrival time, here are a couple tricks of the trade that’ll transform your insights into airline delays.

a sunset seen through a window

Airlines Have Good Reasons

First, airlines almost always downplay delay times. That’s not quite as devious as it may sound and there are many good reasons for it, even in disingenuous.

Times can often be made up in the air and the worst thing for a delayed flight is when passengers aren’t ready to go. Giving shorter delay estimates helps to get passengers to a place where the airline is in control — airside.

Once through security and near a gate area — aka “airside” — it is much easy to get passengers boarded. If they haven’t yet cleared security, or are still somewhere in the city, the airline has a tougher time with a quick turnaround.

Plus, those people will need to be booked onto later flights, causing knock on issues. Other things like staff time outs, overtime and delay fines all factor into airline desire to corral people at a gate, long before the plane arrives. It’s not evil, it’s just annoying!

What You Can Do To Call Delay “BS” Responsibly

No one likes a showboat and no one wants to ruin anyone else’s plans, so take this seasoned advice responsibly. Don’t go shouting around the airport about how wrong the delay time is.

The main thing to know is that apps and technology will often tell a different story to the latest airline delay times. A great place to start is FlightRadar24. You’ll need your flight number, and that’s about it.

By entering your flight number you’ll be able to see the aircraft operating your flight today. Nope, not just the general type, but the actual “tail number” or unique aircraft identifier that’ll be operating the flight. Some geeks like me keep track these to know if we’ve flown on the specific aircraft before.

Inbound Flight Tracking For The Win

Once you’ve found your flight on FlightRadar24, tap “aircraft info”, where you’ll see a list of other recent flights the plane has operated. Included in that, directly below your flight, will be the flight it’s operating to reach you.

This is the golden nugget of information.

Let’s run it through step by step, with American 104, a daily London – New York flight.

a screenshot of a phone

I search the flight number in FlightRadar24 as noted and then select the scheduled flight. I then am presented with the last 10 or so flights, with green meaning on time, orange meaning minor delay and red meaning significant delay.

I want to click today’s flight, the one I’ll be on.

a screenshot of a phone

Once I’ve clicked the date of the flight I’ll be on, the next step is the most important. You want to hit “aircraft info” and go from there.

a screenshot of an airplane

You can fairly accurately predict the actual delay time by seeing how long that flight still has to reach you, and then adding circa 20-30 minutes on top for the turnaround on the ground. In this instance, it’ll be landing early, as we see below.

a screenshot of a computer

Based on the information above, I’d have no reason to believe my flight will be departing late. I’ve had countless times though, where the airline still says a flight is on time yet I see that the inbound aircraft is still yet to take off, waiting on issues.

When not in a hub city where an aircraft swap could happen, I can usually hang my hat on the fact that there will be a delay, and if I’m really good, I can notice before the airline tells me.

When Things Aren’t On Time

In the case of my family and friends visiting in Palm Springs there was a JetBlue flight which was scheduled for 8:45PM. For about a week, each night quickly popped up a delay time of 9:30. Most people obviously believed and followed that.

They either arrived at the same time, or a few minutes later. Naturally, JetBlue tells them to arrive on time “just in case” and whatnot.

But using FlightRadar24 I could see that at 8:45 the plane would still have an hour and a half in the air to reach Palm Springs, there was no alternate aircraft available here and in reality, a 10:30 departure was really the true-true best case. That’s a full hour difference.

What can you do with an hour? Well, not wait at a gate for one. In cities where the airport is easy to reach it can mean an extra hour at home, fun in a restaurant or just doing anything but grinding with the masses in a cramped gate area!

Other Resources Can Help

Things like FlightAware, OAG, Cirium and even just Google can be really good at showing prompt and timely delay information, or historical data on how often a flight is late, cancelled or heavily delayed.

Whenever I need to get somewhere on time, I’ll consult FlightAware historical data or other sources to get a good picture of the likelihood this route poses for delays. And FlightRadar24 can help well with that too.

an airplane on a runway

Caveats For Closure

It’s important to factor in things like hubs and major airports in your planning. If you’re flying from an outstation — aka anywhere that’s not a hub of the airline you’ll be flying, chances are the plane that’s coming in for your flight is the only plane around to get you home on that airline.

At a place like say, Atlanta, flying Delta, there’s a small chance that another bird is in a hanger somewhere and if push comes to shove, they may be able to swap the heavily delayed inbound aircraft or find a new one if there’s a mechanical delay.

These things are typically unlikely, but the warning is that if your flight out of an airline hub is increasingly delayed, you’ll want to get more information. In the example of the plane arriving at Palm Springs, there’s no JetBlue hangar here, so it was a sure thing.

You don’t want to bet on a plane being four hours late only to find out that they found a replacement plane and everyone left without you. Again, uncommon, but this is the internet and there’s responsibility if we’re talking hub cities.

For most flights though, use technology to tell you what airlines might be slow, or woefully inaccurate in volunteering up. It may allow you one final toast, or breath of fresh air outside of the airport.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Great points Gilbert. I’m not sure about other airline apps but the United app shows you previous flights of the same aircraft (going back several days) and makes it easy to estimate whether the previous flight will land in time.

  2. That looks rather complicated – Flightaware.com has a button “Where is my plane now?”.

    And the aircraft substitution at a hub can work both ways – last week I was unexpectedly delayed when the scheduled plane was reassigned and we had to wait for some other late flight to come in

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