How to... beat holiday airport delays

You’ve seen it coming for months, lurking in the distance on your calendar. 'Tis the season of travel, when people from all sides of the country converge with extended family. It’s beautiful, it’s meaningful, it’s full of joy — but the journey can be exhausting. Here’s a list of tips to help you get through that holiday travel chaos:

1. Arrive early. It’s common sense, really, but in a season when so many extra people are transiting the world’s airports, there’s bound to be a traffic jam. And those traffic jams extend beyond just the line for security that you’re stuck in. Backlogs of hold baggage, delayed aircraft, overbooked flights and even road traffic to/from the airport means you probably should have left for the airport sometime back in June in order to ensure that timely Christmas day arrival. Budget at least 2 hours before your scheduled departure time, more for international departures.

2. Book sensibly. Let’s say you live in Tampa, and you need to fly to Albuquerque for the holidays. Every airline you’ve checked requires a stopover someplace — but which one will get you to your destination with the least frustration? If you’re going to get stuck someplace overnight, choose wisely. An overnight in Detroit in mid-December is probably less appealing than warmer, sunnier Houston this time of year. Airports can close down due to weather conditions, but you’ve got a bigger chance of making that connection if your layover airport isn’t in a blizzard zone.

3. Delays are not always the airline’s fault, and often beyond their control. Let’s face it, it is frustrating when your plane is delayed, but that uniform behind the ticket counter is not responsible for inconveniencing you, so don't shoot the messenger. That flight delay could be caused by any number of reasons: patchy weather in a distant airport holds up take-off and departures, passengers get ill requiring emergency landings at alternate airports, crew shortages due to maximum legal working requirements, aircraft requiring maintenance, and yes — even passengers not stowing their bags, fastening seat belts or putting those tray tables away when told can hold up your flight. That said, it’s a rare snowy day in hell when the airline will hold an aircraft for YOU if you’re running late. So play your part in helping everyone get to their destination in a timely manner by sitting down and buckling up on time.

4. Delays are inconvenient for everyone — including your captain and crew. Spewing invective at the desk clerk will only get you sent to the back of the line. Shouting obscenities at your cabin crew member can land you in handcuffs (it’s a legal offence to deny safety instructions or verbally / physically abuse a crew member). At the very least, they serve you food and drink — so why bite the hand that feeds you? Your crew, captain and desk agents all want to get home, too. And often, they have another two or three flights to operate before that becomes a reality. And if the delay happens on the first flight of their day, it only drags out their working shift. Be grateful you only have the one delay.

5. A little good cheer goes a long way. Many years ago on a layover in Denver, I witnessed a very angry family at the ticket counter demanding to be booked on the next available flight out of town. Of course, for most airlines, that’s standard practice if you miss your flight. So there’s no reason for the anger. I wandered across the hall to a coffee shop and bought two cups of coffee — one for the angry father, and the other for the desk clerk. It didn’t get me any in-flight perks or upgrades, but a little goodwill can help make the entire experience less painful. The same goes for your cabin crew: a polite ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is sometimes all it takes to put them over the moon, and may get you that extra glass of wine on-board.

6. Delays in the airport are better than delays in the aircraft. Even if you happen to be caught in the regional airport of Eagle River, Wisconsin with nothing but a vending machine and a dripping water fountain — it’s better to be delayed while at the gate than on the airplane. While sitting at the head of the runway for 2 hours waiting to take-off is awful, it’s still better than the ultimate alternative of flirting with a major airline accident. Towing an aircraft back to gate to let passengers off is a logistical and security nightmare: in one instance of my flying career, an aircraft burned several thousands litres of fuel just in push-back, taxi, waiting and returning to stand. It required fuel trucks to be called to refuel the aircraft — and we hadn’t even left the apron. The entire delay was due to a passenger who wouldn't comply with safety standards. If you are caught in aircraft limbo, crack open that book, do the sudoku from the in-flight magazine, drink your own bottle of water (you did bring one with you, right?) and wait it out. Though the information may be sparse, your crew wants to ensure they pass on correct information when they have it, rather than fob you off. They’ve got plenty to worry about while you sit and wait.

7. If it all goes wrong, know what you’re entitled to. Sometimes, even the best of plans go awry. Delays and cancellations happen. When that occurs, check the airline’s terms and conditions: you may be entitled to a refund, food or accommodation allowances or other compensation. If you’ve booked with your credit card, they may have an insurance policy that covers some travel delays. Or, if you’ve purchased travel insurance, check their conditions. At any rate, once you know what you’re entitled to — ask for it, firmly and politely. I’ve been able to swing a first class transatlantic ticket before using this technique — but only because I knew ahead of time what my rights were in the particular situation.


Airline delays can be a frustration, but keeping your cool can make a huge difference to you, your fellow passengers and the airline staff. Hopefully, you won’t get caught, but if you do, it’s best to take advantage of the enforced down time. Day dream, read that book, take a nap, eat a chocolate bar and strike up a conversation with your neighbour. And before you know it, you’ll be on your way.