Why Did Delta Move My Departure Time Earlier at the Last Minute? (Ask Cranky)

Let’s get this week started with an Ask Cranky question, shall we? At first read, I thought this was kind of a basic question, but I quickly realized I was wrong.

My girlfriend is in grad school at Michigan and so I travel there all the time from San Francisco. Tonight, about three and a half hours prior to departure, we got a text telling us that our flight on Delta was leaving early. It looks like it wasn’t only us, but also the flight to Atlanta. Look at the screen, it’s scheduled for 10:15, status is leaving at 10:00. What’s going on here? Michael

Well this one seems obvious, right? I mean airlines close their doors early all the time, and it’s not uncommon for them to push back before scheduled departure. But wait, that’s not what’s happening here. Look at the photo Michael sent. This is something different.

Sure enough, Delta didn’t just shut the doors early. It actually changed the estimated departure time like it would in a delay. Less than 4 hours before the new, earlier departure time, Michael got a text from Delta saying the flight would go 15 minutes early. Presumably the decision wasn’t made long before that. So…why?

I went to Delta to get the answer, and this is what spokesperson Michael Thomas had to say.

We’re in somewhat of a transition period where the Jetstream is somewhat weaker than it is normally this time of year (we’ve stayed warmer later in the year driving lighter winds aloft across the continental US (the Jetstream has remained further north, relatively). This has resulted in lighter headwinds for flights heading westbound and similarly lighter tailwinds heading eastbound. Our block times are based on historical averages and on [that day’s] flights, the flight plan was built taking into account lighter than historical tailwinds. You’ll notice both of those flights arrived on schedule. It’s likely had the flights not departed a tad early, the flight would have arrived past the scheduled arrival time. We can’t do it with every flight, of course, but where we have opportunities to do the right thing for our customers, provide advance notice and get them there on schedule, we’re going to do it.

That is interesting, no? With lighter tailwinds, the flight heading east would have taken longer than usual. Presumably the airplane came from the east, and it likely arrived early in San Francisco due to lighter than usual headwinds on the way out. If the airplane is there and they have enough time to turn it around, why not try to go early to keep the eastbound flight arriving on time?

I like it, especially since I’m sure plenty of people had connections on the other end. Even a 15 minute delay could have busted some of the shortest connections, so this is the right thing to do. And in San Francisco, I doubt there were many if any people connecting in to those flights from elsewhere. People just needed to get to the airport a bit early.

But what if they didn’t? What if someone showed up at the gate at 10pm for that Detroit flight? Delta rules require being in the gate area and ready to board 15 minutes before scheduled departure. That airplane would have already been gone, and that person would have been livid. I asked Michael at Delta about that.

We would not have left unless we had all the customers we expected.

That answers that. It would have been nice if Delta had a way of saying “Expected flight time tonight is longer than normal due to light winds, so get to the airport early. That way, we can leave early and get you there on time.” Of course, Delta’s systems are nowhere near that robust. The next best thing is to just change the departure time and hope everyone shows up.

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Muscat,  Oman
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