Dear United Airlines: There’s Such A Thing As Too Much Information About A Delay

One of the biggest frustrations airline passengers face is delays – but not just because they may not get where they’re going when they’d hoped, or even miss a connection along the way, but because they’re frequently kept in the dark about what’s going on. They don’t know when to expect they’ll actually leave, and often feel like they’re being lied to.

And they sometimes are lied to! Years ago United Airlines would share weather as the reason for a delay with passengers, but the United Cargo website would show a different (real) reason that may have required the airline to provide greater assistance to customers, such as a hotel room if they’re stuck overnight.

United has done a much better job the last few years in keeping customers informed. They’ve moved to more detailed explanations of irregular operations, offered in plain language. Instead of just saying a delay is caused by “weather” where the customer looks around and sees nothing but blue skies, they might offer that the aircraft being used for the flight was coming from a specific city where it was affected by weather.

Still, there’s such a thing as United giving out too much delay information to customers. The excellent Josh Barro, whose new Substack I very much enjoy, tells me that before this morning’s United Airlines flight 42 from Newark to Maui, the gate agent announced a delay,

because we are waiting for pillows and blankets for first class, and we can’t board until those are on board.

Class warfare! Foment the revolution! It’s a parody moment that Christopher Elliott should love.

Taking a short delay is a perfectly reasonable operational decision here,

  • It’s a long enough flight for the pillows and blankets to matter for customers who paid for that product
  • The short delay shouldn’t be material relative to the overall flight time
  • There will be very few onward connections, so no one is likely to misconnect

This is where the gate agent ought to just offer that the short delay is caused by “a catering issue.” Especially since the delay lengthened, and the gate agent returned over half an hour later to announce “We are just waiting for a few more items that are needed for the first class cabin.”

I’m not sure that telling a planeload of passengers who won’t get pillows and blankets that they’re being delayed so that other people can have them is a good idea before packing everyone into a Boeing 767-300 for 11 hours and 16 minutes.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. After the coach cabin passengers are intentionally delayed for the pillows, blankets, and traditional Russian” Siberian sturgeon caviar to be boarded, sell the empty first-class seats, for $500 as a coach class upgrade to enhance United Airlines profits.

  2. Newark catering has been a debacle (in terms of reliability) since United outsourced Chelsea. I’m not sure if cabin provisioning is the same vendor now, but they have had continuous staffing issues and I’ve taken more delays than ever before for controllable issues like this.

  3. LOL I once had a delay onboard bc they forgot the plates/silverware! No they did not announce it over the PA!

  4. Two hour delay to load pillows and blankets? 250 people delayed by 2 hours. Seems like that a bigger issue than the announcement. Too bad United doesn’t respect people time.

  5. I suspect the gate agent knew EXACTLY what they were doing and for whatever reason wanted to make a little dig at First Class.

  6. I prefer United to competitors like AA and Jetblue specifically because of their excellent communication around delays. It puts them far above the competition that they are transparent and punctual in communicating flight issues!

  7. Y’all are never satisfied. You want more information yet when it’s given to you honestly you get pissed off saying it’s TMI! Make up your minds.

    As a gate agent I am AA transparent as I can be, AA well as diplomatic. But some pax have come up yelling LIAR/FUX YOU/WHATS YOUR NAME, nevermind the l two times I’ve been assaulted and shoved down and kicked. Abuse is what gate agents get for the problems beyond our control and pax hold US accountable.

    They should do the National no fly list. Or be prepared to have a bigger employee shortage and more flight delays and cancellations as our reserve is thin. The consequences for pax behavior are people quitting and there is no one left to work your flights.

  8. Hi
    Yes told us problem with fuel pump,2 hours later said going with one,it didn’t help my flying nerves I can tell you,too much information

  9. I’ve had mis-catered flights before (same lack of pillow and blanket as in this example) and was fine with that even as a biz passenger as it was more important for me to make my connection than be delayed by x number of minutes/hours. AA chose to keep the departure on time, which was perfectly fine with me- plus, I received bonus miles due to the product issue not being what was advertised.

  10. My favorite example of TMI was waiting to board a Northwestern Airlines 747 from Minneapolis to SFO.

    The large number of passengers (300+) was crowding the gate and finally the attendant announced that the delay was due to the plane having had a very turbulent flight into Minneapolis and the ground crew was having to change a number of seat covers.

    Almost immediately it seemed that most people wanted to board last.

  11. Please do not write any more columns about the silent AA gate agents after this column…

    Knowing the reason for a delay always brings my stress level down so UA always wins there.

  12. I was once on an AA flight. The lead FA announced to the first class cabin breakfast meals were not loaded in time. He took a poll: delay the flight 15 minutes to load the breakfasts or skip breakfast and depart on time. All the F passengers voted to depart on time.

  13. @ Gate Agent. I’ve seen verbally abusive people to gate agents and I always say a little prayer for them. Your work is extremely difficult. I don’t know how you deal with thousands of people a day, especially inconsiderate ones. Just know, some people do appreciate your work!

  14. I flew on Frontier for the first time last week. The outbound flight was delayed for 90 minutes. The captain announced, “We had a small computer maintenance issue, but honestly, most of the delay was caused by all the paperwork involved.” He then went on to say, “We won’t be able to make up the time in the air because air traffic control just canceled our route, and now we have to fly north and then west before we can head south. It’s just a mess!” I laughed out loud, but at least he was honest.

  15. On the topic of TMI: Last Sunday I was on the MIA to TLV flight. Most lavatories stopped working, only three remaining (two in coach and one in biz). Completely full flight. The purser gave some very specific instruction on what should and should not be done in the lavatories in order to enable to long lines to use them. I thought it was funny and brilliant at the same time. Unfortunately it was abundantly clear that some pax did not pay attention.

  16. I was lied to once by a gate agent. Told me I’d have to check a bag b/c the overhead bins were full. Got to my seat and there was in fact space in the bin. Turns out they were just guessing.

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