Here’s why airlines don’t always reveal the full truth about flight delays

A pilot gives the thumps up to as gets the go ahead to leave airport.
(Peter Morrison / AP)

Occasionally, a passenger will accuse an airline of not being truthful about why a flight is delayed.

As a flight attendant who has endured perhaps 2,000 flight delays during my 32-year career, I have never heard airline representatives issue a bald-faced lie.

But we are often guilty of omitting salient facts.

Consider the case some years ago of a flight from New York’s JFK to Zurich. The flight was delayed until the next day because of “crew manning” issues.


This might lead you to assume that a pilot fell ill or the crew had surpassed its legal flying limit.

Truth is, during his layover in New York, the captain was arrested for lewd and lascivious behavior.The judge refused to release the captain on bond because he posed an obvious flight risk.

The airline couldn’t assign a replacement pilot until the next day, so passengers were forced to overnight at a local hotel at the airline’s expense.

I wasn’t there, but when outraged passengers asked why the flight had been delayed I’m certain the airline’s response was not this: “We apologize for the inconvenience, but yesterday our captain was incarcerated after a New York City cop caught him naked.”

About three years ago, a flight from Harare, Zimbabwe, to Johannesburg, South Africa, was delayed five hours because the captain never made it past the security checkpoint.

Witnesses said security personnel asked the captain to remove his shoes after the magnetometer beeped. When it beeped a second time, he was asked to remove his belt.


Apparently, this set him off. Protesting airport security procedures, the captain stripped down to this underwear. He was subsequently arrested.

Did the airline omit salient facts when passengers asked why the flight was delayed? You bet your frequent-flier miles it did.

A year earlier, another airline found itself in the same predicament. A flight from Salvador, Brazil, to Miami was canceled after a pilot, upset at the beeping magnetometer, stripped down to his underwear at the security checkpoint. Passengers were not told the entire story.

Hydraulic leaks. Engine failure. Flat tires. Computer blackouts. Air traffic control restrictions. Any number of mechanical or operational issues can delay a flight.

Although many passengers roll their eyes when they hear about a delay, they’re usually quick to understand that the plane is broken and needs to be repaired. Logic overrides emotion.

But when the truth could potentially cause embarrassment to the airline — or worse, when the truth undermines the credibility of the person flying the airplane, passengers may not always get the whole story.


Several years ago I was assigned to work a flight from New York to Los Angeles. As passengers boarded the aircraft, the crew realized our captain hadn’t shown up.

The first officer arrived on time and was performing his duties in the cockpit. The flight attendants were good to go. All overhead bins had been closed. Passengers settled into their seats.

Departure time came and went with no sign of the most important person on the crew.

Later, I overheard the gate agent whispering to the purser. Evidently, our missing captain had spoken by phone to crew scheduling and was on his way.

One hour passed. Then two. Passengers who were already upset became irate. All we could tell them was what we had been told: “The captain is on his way.”

When the captain finally showed up, the cabin erupted in derisive applause. Red-faced and sweaty, he hurried to the cockpit.

Once we were airborne, the captain’s voice crackled over the public address system.

“I apologize for the lengthy delay,” he said. He mumbled something about getting a late start to the airport, which was true. Then he mentioned being stuck in horrendous traffic, which was also true.


What he failed to tell more than 200 passengers — what he later told flight attendants during a shame-faced confession on the crew bus — was that he had gotten his flight schedule mixed up. He thought he was supposed to fly the next day.

During passenger boarding in New York, when crew scheduling called to ask the captain why he hadn’t reported to the flight, he was actually at a golf course preparing to tee off.