Who Cancels and Delays Airline Flights?

Q: When a flight is delayed due to weather or mechanical problems, who makes the decisions whether to delay, cancel, etc.?

This is an excellent question, and close to the heart of much of the friction between the airlines and their customers. Weather or traffic delays usually come directly from Air Traffic Control (which is to say the FAA). During delays, things are coordinated from the airline’s Dispatch department. Teams of trained and licensed dispatchers, who work in a huge room that looks like NASA control, handle the nitty-gritty of these situations. Via radio, phone, or computer, they are in constant contact with the flight crew, even while aloft, with whom they confer to coordinate weather delays, monitor the progress of maintenance, etc. The interplay between dispatch, the crew, and the agents at the counters is where things often become messy. Remember than an airline is often handling the logistics of hundreds of flights at any one time, resulting in the need for some daunting choreography. If airlines seem reluctant to dispense information during delays, it’s usually just a case of simply not knowing the details of if, when, and how. Passing on the complexities of a situation is often going to confuse people more than placate them.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.