What Airlines Don't Get About Delays

By presenting the same limited information to fliers in a very different way, carriers might be able to make everyone a little less aggravated.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

It used to be that road-weary travelers would regale their nightly hosts with tales of rivers forded, vistas taken in, injuries sustained, and possibly even enemies vanquished. In the modern world, that oral tradition has given way to incredulous whining. The closest thing the 21st century has to an archetypal voyage narrative is idling on the tarmac: “40 minutes, can you believe they kept us out there for 40 minutes!?”

Perhaps people will always find something to gripe about, but anger over delays seems needless, even inefficient. Last year, roughly one in every four flights was delayed by 15 minutes or more, and even though airlines are often only partly to blame, they—and their employees, who often know just as little as the travelers do—end up absorbing the brunt of their customers’ ire. Since the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t place any restrictions on how airlines relay information about delays or cancellations to their customers, perhaps talking about delays differently could make everyone involved a little less aggravated.

“As far as I can judge, the airlines indeed tend to be overly optimistic when informing customers about the expected delays,” says Volodymyr Bilotkach, a senior lecturer in economics at Newcastle University who has studied the airline industry. “I personally tend to add at least 15 to 20 minutes to the time announced by the pilot or a gate agent.” Bilotkach says that he thinks delays and cancellations can affect consumers’ perceptions of an airline.

Delays are undeniably difficult to estimate, since flights involve so many moving parts (maintenance teams, runway space, in-flight and on-the-ground crews), but why does it seem to be the norm to overpromise and underdeliver, instead of vice versa? Nathan Novemsky, a professor marketing at Yale, has two theories. First, it might be that pilots on the tarmac might be overly optimistic in their guess of how long it’ll take for a task to be completed—a phenomenon that behavioral economists call the “planning fallacy.” Another possibility: “They are not thinking about expectations they are setting but rather focused on the immediate disappointment people will feel at the time of the announcement and trying to minimize that,” Novemsky says.

Attempting to soften that initial letdown is the most natural way to break bad news—two airline employees I heard from told me that overestimating a delay would foment chaos in the cabin. But research about how expectations shape the perceived passage of time suggests that fliers might be happier (or at least less whiny) if delays were presented differently.

“Consider two scenarios,” says Richard Larson, a professor of engineering systems at MIT who has studied queuing. In the first, the pilot guesses that a delay will last 15 minutes, and it takes 30—customers will end up stewing in their seats. In the second, the pilot apologizes and says the delay may be as long as 45 minutes, and it takes 30—people will feel like they “saved” 15 minutes in the end. “Same situation, [the] only difference is the managed expectations,” Larson says. That’s why Disney, for example, makes a point of overestimating wait times at its amusement parks. By the time guests strap in for a ride, they feel the warmth of exceeded expectations.

And while travelers’ perceptions in the moment matter, another important part of delays is how they’re remembered. A 1995 study found that while the frustration of waiting isn’t completely forgotten, it’s at least partially erased if the experience ended in a way that beat the estimate. In other words, no matter how aggravating it was to wait at the gate for 45 minutes, people who were told it would last an hour would look back on the experience less negatively, since it ended with a pleasant surprise.

In the past, the airline industry has had some success with changing the way it estimated travel time. Boaz Mourad, the CEO and founder of Insight Strategy Group, a consumer-research firm, notes that about 15 years ago, planes were chronically behind schedule, and airlines suffered a lot of negative media coverage as a result. “And then suddenly," he says, "airlines became more on time." What happened? “They simply extended the [estimated] time,” says Boaz. For example, a flight leaving at 3 and arriving at 9 would become a flight leaving at 3 and arriving at 10. Flights started arriving “earlier,” and people started complaining less.

David Bejou, the dean of West Virginia State University's College of Business and Social Sciences, suggests yet another reason why paying attention to when people’s expectations aren’t met is so important: If customers are treated exceedingly well, they can come away with even more positive feelings toward a company. “Research has shown that customer satisfaction is much higher when there is a problem and the problem is fixed to the satisfaction of the customers as opposed to [when] there was no problem to begin with,” he says. In some cases, it seems that to have been delayed and treated fairly is better to than have never been delayed at all.