Why Didn’t You Hold the Plane for Me? Don’t You Know Who I Am!?!

Heels First Travel has a DYKWIA seatmate furious that the airline didn’t hold her connecting flight and muses on why an airline may choose to do so – or not to do so.

It was something like “I showed up at the gate at 7:59 and they said the flight was supposed to leave at 7:55 and was already taxiing. I don’t know why they couldn’t have held the flight, it’s the same airline, they knew my flight was arriving late, I mean they even had new tickets printed for me. Now I can’t leave until 1:20PM. I’m never flying this airline again.”

Airlines won’t generally hold an aircraft for a late arriving passenger.

  • Holding a plane for 10 minutes may cause other passengers to misconnect on their next flight.
  • Holding a plane means it likely arrives late, takes off late on its next flight, and faces continued delays which cascade through the day.
  • Any time you delay a flight there’s the chance for other things to go wrong — be it more weather delays, if heading into a congested airport you might lose takeoff slot, and then those things cascade — for the two reasons above but also risking crews timing out especially if late in the day.

Bottom-line is that holding a plane can be very costly. American thinks they can reduce their average boarding time by 2 minutes by allowing passengers without carry on luggage to board early. If they’re right they consider that a big win.

When considering how to accommodate a passenger they need to compare the cost of that one passenger versus the cost to all of the other passengers, and the airline. There are unseen tradeoffs, and in general airlines try to balance these things as best they can (with imperfect information – they don’t know what plans each passenger has in order to weigh relative importance/subjective costs).

Still, airlines do hold aircraft. In March United held a flight so a man wouldn’t misconnect enroute to seeing his dying mother. A couple of years ago Southwest held a flight for a man going to see his dying 2 year old grandson. Stuff like that is compassionate and generates good publicity. And failing to do it will generate a media firestorm.

When I toured the American Airlines operations center last year during the oneworld MegaDO, they explained why they had cancelled the flight that MegaDOers participating in the optional European portion the day before were traveling on. Those passengers (and others on London-Dallas) could be fairly easily re-routed. A flight needed to be cancelled. Cancelling, say, London-Chicago instead would have been far more problematic — apparently there were a large group of passengers onboard continuing onto American’s Chicago – Tokyo service. I wouldn’t have expected that (most would just fly London-Tokyo non-stop!).

It’s not just which connecting flights get held, but also which departing flights get priority — when weather reduces an airport’s ability to handle takeoffs and landings, the airline will generally pick which flights get limited takeoff slots. And they’ll apply a similar rubric — a flight that’s carrying a substantial number of connecting passengers, especially passengers to connecting to a once daily international flight, is likely to be given priority.

Heels First was right to conclude, about her seatmate,

In this particular person’s case, it sounded like she was the only person affected by the delay and they could easily accommodate her on another plane leaving later without having to throw off the entire flight schedule for one person. Not to mention if missing one flight would cause her to “never ever ever fly them again” she’s probably not a customer worth keeping.

And she was probably right also not to tell her seatmate this.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. The worst of the DYKWIAs are so sure they’re special they don’t even mind telling everybody about it. They see nothing wrong and don’t realize we don’t all see them as special.

  2. My personal rule of thumb is simple: which passenger(s) is(are) going to be affected more? Imagine 20 passengers already seated on the last regional flight of the day. Do you hold 5 minutes for 1 last passenger? Yes, as long as the delay he/she would incur as a result is more than 1 hour 40 minutes AND no passengers already seated are going to be further delayed by consequently missing their connecting flights.

  3. BTW, I don’t think this was necessarily a DYKWIA scenario. The writer didn’t say that the woman was brandishing her status, whether FF, socio-economic, or otherwise. Just that the woman was irate.

  4. ..except possibly the last flight of the day..
    a) Many if not most of the downstream items are no longer an issue
    b) Airline doesn’t want to put you up overnight (and I doubt the passenger does either).

  5. I always tell them, “if you are that special and important, how come you don’t fly in your own Gulfstream?”

  6. @Truthiness – totally off topic, but I have never received a quota nor any insistence that the number of credit card applications generated by this site had to grow month-over-month. That may be others’ experience (a site can certainly be too small and too little trafficked to be worth the overhead of a credit card company’s time assuring that things are accurate and not misleading consumers for regulatory compliance) and perhaps a small site might argue “but our signups are growing so we’re worth working with” but none of that stuff applies to a site like this one.

  7. Understanding all that you wrote I still could never forgive the late Swissair airlines for leaving me stranded after my late connection. I know what you are thinking but I ARRIVED at the gate 10 minutes before scheduled departure anyway. Their lame explanation was that they knew luggage would never make it. YES INDEED and that is why I never travel with check in baggage.
    I was rushing to NYC while my dad had bypass surgery.
    I was glad to see them go. They probably left early to get a specific slot.

  8. What may seem like a roll of the dice to some pax, is actually a VERY carefully considered procedure. The various airlines consider ALL of the above cited situations and many other that we never see. They are very mindful of pending connections – that they know about. And frankly, the LEAST effective protest is the DYKWIA thing; they do NOT CARE. The only missed flight that I truly object to is the one that blocks out 10 minutes EARLY, because ‘most’ of the pax were aboard. It does not happen often, but that situation does cause me some irritation. Otherwise, I think most of them do a fairly good job of at least trying to keep the airplanes moving according to the block schedule. It may be fun to beat up on the airlines, and we have more than ample reasons to do so. That they rarely hold a flight for a late arriving pax is not one of the better choices. And anyone who tries to pull the DYKWIA thing deserves to be left behind – IMO.

  9. Frank… I see your math but can you really know all the ramifications of waiting 5 minutes? Does your 5 minutes affect other flights scheduled right after you or do you lose a place in line? Can they calculate it all that fast?

  10. @Carl, great questions, and it’s a super-complex subject. I didn’t even get into the ramifications of being on a flight early in the day, or if there are flow controls in place, or the like. The right way to handle all this would be with a stochastic simulation system, where given a question (should we delay a flight 5 minutes for a given passenger?) the airline can run, say 10K or even 100K simulations in a matter of seconds (feasible with cloud computing). Not knowing a ton about airline operations centers, but knowing quite a bit about stochastic simulation, I’d guess we’ll see airlines doing this within five years or so.

  11. As a reply to Carl P.
    At one time I was commuting transatlantic almost weekly and I became quite familiar with certain routines. Transatlantic flight sometimes have trouble getting an ideal slot and sometimes are given the choice of depart 10 minutes early or 30 minutes late. When slots are so limited they might just have to leave ontime.

  12. I was flamed a few months ago on flyertalk when I expressed dismay that a UA flight out of IAH wasn’t held 5 minutes for my family arriving on a late connection. It was the last flight of the day, the flights the next morning were sold out, and they would be delayed 18 hours if they missed it. UA even sent me an alert about the problem, and I got an agent at the 1K desk to call the gate and ask for the very modest delay. No can do; they arrived at the terminal 7 minutes before the next flight left, ran to the connecting gate, and discovered that they gave my family’s seats away to standbys and closed the door. We also had to pay for the hotel room for that night.


    Last week, I was on an AirTran flight that was the last one of the day and we waited for 10 minutes for late arriving connections. So you never know.

  13. Does it change anyone’s mind if the delay is the airlines fault? What if you missed your flight by < 1 minute? I had this happen last Fall. I didn't pull a DYKWIA, but it was sure hard to stand there at the gate trying to get rebooked on a later flight, when the plane didn't even push back for another 15 minutes…

  14. I hosted a dinner a few years ago for my organization and the guest of honor was one of the Supreme Court Justices. Since I was also in charge of making sure the Justice left in time to catch his plane back to Washington, I became worried that he was spending too much time saying his goodbyes.

    I spoke to his Secret Service detail and they said don’t worry, the plane will be waiting for him and won’t leave without him! So sometimes the airlines will definitely hold the plane.

  15. My all time winner was a transfer at MXP to a swissair flight. MXP was a mess as it often was. I was an invalid in a wheelchair and the invalid assist was extra slow. I phoned the Swissair station manager when I was within sight of the plane, rolling from domestic to international. The manager asked where I was and I said in the wheelchair approaching. Upon hearing the word wheelchair he said we can’t wait and left. I was there 90 seconds later with 3 others that just missed the flight. Too bad these people lost their jobs and pensions when the airline went bust.

  16. @Gizmosdad – Neither changes my mind at all. Unless someone is going to see a dying relative one last time, I don’t think the airline should hold the plane. And even if someone were going to see a dying relative, I wouldn’t blame the airline if they didn’t hold the place.

    @Craig – An airline might hold a plane for a VIP like a Supreme Court Justice (who may have a government security detail that perhaps made their own arrangements with the airline), but that’s a little different than holding a plane for John Q. Public. There are only 9 Supreme Court Justices, after all. Also, if a Supreme Court Justice has security, it’s probably either the Supreme Court Police or the US Marshals, not the Secret Service.

  17. Aren’t the gate agents rated for on time performance? If so, it is a dis-incentive to hold a plane.

  18. Consider this COMMON scenario:

    ONE prop-plane flies IAD-SCE, flight time: 1 hour.
    Drive time: 3 hours.
    Number of seats: 36
    Number of passengers: << 36

    Incoming IAD flight is running a few minutes late.
    Outgoing IAD-SCE flight does not wait.

    Is that right? The passenger waiting for the next flight must wait now arrive LATER than if he drove. Will United credit him, or rent him a car? No, of course not. It's not going to cause a cascade, it's simply obnoxious and the reason why there's <<36 passenger on board.

  19. It’s easy to make asumptions on how YOU think a airline should run. There are a lot of factors you’re missing. Yes I use to agree with the whole “If it’s the last flight of the day, why not wait?” The reality is that when the flight is the last of the day and the CREW is not ending they’re trip (going home), they start to incur in what airlines call, Crew Legalities. Which can cause either the current flight you’re on to cancel or the morning flight to delay and with that cause the “domino/cascade” effect. Both of these are very costly to all Airlines. Another factor is that last flight usually tend to be at night and a lot of arriving airport have curfews. EXAMPLE; La Guardia Airport in NY has a curfew of 1a.m.

    Airlines hate leaving passangers behind, it cuases stress on both parties. But at somepoint the inconveniences have to stop. If not, the whole system would be delay everyday due to the “domino/cascade” effect.

    So whenever you lose your flight beacuse the airline didn’t “hold” just think how many people will now make it beacuse you didn’t.

    Sorry if you were inconvenienced, but someone has to “take one for the team”.

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