The 5 Best Ways To Deal With Flight Delays, According To Science

by JR Thorpe
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As people fly home for the holidays, many of us are gearing up to deal with the wonders of modern air travel, from bewildering duty-free areas at airports to chatty neighbours on planes. One particular annoyance for literally every flyer? Flight delays. Almost everyone who flies regularly has experienced them, and flying at the same time as a bunch of other people, compounded by the fact that bad weather is more common around the holidays, means that folks who are planning on air travel this next week should be prepared to play the waiting game. A delayed flight can derail your holiday through missed connections, car and hotel snafus, and all kinds of domino-effect problems. Luckily, however, science gives us a few clues on the best ways to deal with flight delays, both by proactive planning and taking strategic action at the airport itself.

The most important thing to remember about flight delays is that the airline representatives at the gate or check-in desk have literally nothing to do with why your flight is delayed — and yelling at them or otherwise being nasty is not going to help you get to your destination faster. Etiquette pays. The second important thing is, if you're flying during a time where delays or cancellations are common, to get travel insurance before you fly which may cover you in the event of a delay. Beyond that, here are some tips and tricks taken from studies of airlines and human behavior to help you cope when the departures board suddenly says "DELAYED."


Research Your Airport

Before you even set a foot out the door, it's a good idea to do your own bit of research: how likely is a delay going to be? While a lot of delays are due to circumstances that can't possibly be predicted, some factors can be predicted — like whether or not an airport is particularly prone to delays. Number-crunchers have found that delays differ seasonally; the worst ten airports across the U.S. for delays shift from summer to winter. Data from winter 2016 showed that the most delayed airports included Cincinnati, Port Columbus, Charlottesville and Miami, while the most delayed in the summer include Newark, La Guardia, Kennedy, Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia. If your local has a bad reputation for getting flights out on time, consider flying from somewhere else.


Ignore Passengers Not Seated Near You

A study in 2016 looked at the phenomenon of "air rage": people feeling aggressive and volatile while on air journeys, almost no matter what. And the researchers made an interesting conclusion: A lot of the rage had to do with what class you flew — and whether you encountered people of a different class. Those economy passengers who had to pass through a first or business-class cabin to reach their own seats were much more likely to suffer from air rage, as were those first- or business-class passengers who encountered economy passengers. The reason? Economy passengers felt slighted, while business and first-class travelers felt threatened by having their giant chairs and free champagne eyeballed. Encountering people who have it considerably worse or better than you is likely to make your mood take a turn for the worse when adversity hits your flight plans. If you want to avoid feeling frustrated, try to be aware of this study's findings and move through the plane mindfully.


Don't Blame The Bigger Airlines

Flights can be delayed for pretty ridiculous reasons. A glass of orange juice caused an airplane fault and a delay in 2017, as did a bat and a drunken pilot (on separate flights). But there's a wide misconception that as airlines merge together they're more inclined to incur delays. That, according to data released in 2017 by Indiana University, isn't actually true.

They looked at the mergers of airlines like Delta and Northwestern, United and Continental, and American West and US Airways, and found that while in the first two years after mergers there were a few more delays than normal, over the long run there were less delays overall. There was also no evidence that big merged airlines made their competitors more delayed, either. These days the American airline market is dominated by four big carriers who've been merged for a while, so there's no reason to pick a smaller airline just because you think they might be more on time.


Know Your Rights Before You Fly

According to data gathered by flight tracker website FlightView in 2015, flyers across America really want convenience when they fly, and are desperate for information when things get stressful or delayed. Unfortunately, sometimes airlines aren't exactly forthcoming about that information, particularly when it comes to consumer rights and compensation. So it pays to do your research before you set out: if things are delayed on your route, what are your options? Where do you complain, and what compensation can you be expected to get? The answer depends very much on where your flight takes off, where it lands, how long it is, and other factors, so there's no one-size-fits-all answer. If delays do happen, keep hold of all your documents and prioritize getting the right information.


Find Space Away From Crowded Terminals

One of the most epic contributors to stress when dealing with a flight delay, according to one expert, is the fact that you're packed in with other people like sardines. Professor Daniel Stokols of the University of California, a psychology expert, told Traveller magazine in June 2017 that human stress responses skyrocket on crowded planes because of mammal psychology, which isn't prepared to tolerate extreme crowding unless it's for a good cause. If something on the flight goes wrong, people are inclined to feel the closeness of other people as a stressor. Being stuck on a delayed plane, or in a crowd of angry passengers in a terminal, is not likely to calm you down. It's best for your mental health to separate yourself from the herd a bit, if possible, while the delay is sorted out.

Ultimately, there's basically nothing a passenger can do about delayed flights except prep themselves, take a good book, and hope for the best. In your spare time, though, it's a good idea to Tweet the airline in question; all major carriers now have dedicated social media teams, whose job it is to listen to your online complaints and try to help out. Find airport Wifi and get in touch.