11 Common Causes of Flight Delays

If you’re ready to travel again, prepare yourself in case you have to experience a flight delay.

Man looking at airport schedule
Updated May 28, 2024
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Travel has been largely restricted due to the pandemic, but people are starting to fly more as restrictions begin to loosen. However, not all flights are guaranteed to arrive on time. If you’re planning your dream trip, you still might have to worry about flight delays.

Depending on the cause and circumstances regarding a flight delay, certain travel credit cards could help protect you from unforeseen circumstances. This could include being reimbursed for a hotel stay or food purchases because a flight delay forced you into an overnight stay near the airport.

Bad weather

Alexey Lesik/Adobe Airliner on runway in blizzard

Unfortunately, there’s nothing that can prevent bad weather from happening. This has nothing to do with issues regarding the airlines or airports — it’s simply up to nature to decide when it wants to cause flight delays.

Bad weather is fairly common, though the type of weather likely depends on your origin and destination. During the winter months, you can expect certain airports to experience terrible winter weather, which inevitably results in flight delays.

Whether you receive any compensation for this kind of flight delay is up to each airline since there’s no U.S. federal requirement to compensate passengers for flight delays. However, it never hurts to ask. If you need to pass some time at the airport, certain airline credit cards offer airport lounge access — which often means free food, drinks, and Wi-Fi.

Equipment malfunction

Alla/Adobe Equipment malfunction

Some flight delays can be reported as mechanical issues or equipment malfunctions, which typically means there’s something wrong with the plane itself. This shouldn’t be a cause of concern because planes aren’t allowed to fly unless they’ve been checked, but your flight could still be delayed.

If mechanical issues disrupt your trip, it’s up to you to see if the airline will compensate you if your flight is canceled and you have to book another flight. In most cases, airlines will work with you to find another flight to get you to your final destination at no additional charge to you.

Closed runway

Gerard/Adobe closed runway

If an airport runway is closed for one reason or another, all incoming and outgoing flights are likely to experience delays. For you, this could mean the plane you’re waiting for isn’t able to land. Or maybe they were able to land, but there’s no gate available since other planes aren’t able to leave.

If you’re going to miss your scheduled flight because of this type of delay, it’s in your best interest to speak with your airline about booking another flight. Most airlines will typically reschedule you onto a later available flight without charging you anything extra.

Crew shortage

Svitlana/Adobe Airline workers with travel suitcases walking in airport terminal

What are you supposed to do if there aren’t enough crew members to man a flight? Typically nothing, other than waiting for more crew to arrive. Staff shortages are common these days in many industries, including for airlines.

Fortunately, the effort you’ve put into saving for an epic vacation doesn’t have to go to waste. Many airlines will attempt to keep you informed of any potential delays ahead of time, though it’s best to stay alert and on top of these things yourself as well. If customer service lines at the airport are too long, you might have to be proactive and call the customer service line or find an alternative method of communication to figure out your situation.

Airplane cleaning

italita/Adobe Cleaning staffs clean the airplane cabin including blankets, pillows and passenger seats

Airlines will clean planes between flights to help ensure passengers are comfortable when boarding. If the process is taking longer than expected, you might experience a delay. This type of delay would be considered an “air carrier” delay by the Department of Transportation, which means it’s a delay that’s within the airline’s control.

But even if the airline may be the cause behind the delay, it doesn’t mean you automatically receive any compensation. If the delay is long enough to cause disruptions in your trip, consider speaking with a customer service representative about possible alternatives.

Baggage loading

Kirill Gorlov/Adobe Airplane baggage being loaded

For your checked baggage to arrive at your destination, it needs to be loaded onto the aircraft you’ll be flying on. This process isn’t always quick, and any other delays (such as the correct plane not arriving on time) could slow it down further. Since everyone wants their baggage on the plane with them, there’s not much to do other than wait for all the bags to be loaded.


Stefano Garau/Adobe airplane being refueled

Similar to a baggage loading delay, you also want your plane to have enough fuel to safely get you to your destination. This requires planned fueling breaks. Fueling a plane wouldn’t typically cause a delay unless things are already behind schedule. If a fueling delay causes you to miss a connecting flight, you would have to speak with the airline about the situation.

In some cases, your credit card could offer reimbursement for expenses during a delay. The policies are different for each travel card, but certain cards will offer coverage for reasonable expenses (meals and lodging) if your delay is 12 hours or more.

Air traffic control

Gorodenkoff/Adobe Air traffic control team in tower at airport

The Federal Aviation Administration handles over 16 million flights each year. Needless to say, that’s a lot of planes in the sky on any given day. An air traffic controller might cause a delay if they restrict the arrival of flights at an airport to a lower number than usual. This would typically be because of safety issues, which could include bad weather.

Previous flight delay

structuresxx/Adobe Young traveler in airport near flight timetable

One of the most common types of flight delays is simply a plane arriving late. You might have a delay because a flight arrived late earlier in the day at a different airport. Like a domino effect, that one late flight could affect the arrival of your scheduled flight at a different airport and time.

Your best recourse is to always speak with the airline about your options and to ask for appropriate compensation. Booking any travel with credit cards that offer travel insurance is also recommended.

Bottom line

Sergey Furtaev/Adobe Man looking at airport schedule

No matter what you do, you could end up with flight delays during your travels. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the risk you take to be able to fly across state and country borders. If you want to be prepared for your trip, remember to use credit cards that can help you book a hotel night during an unforeseen situation.

If you want to avoid the potential hassle of flying, consider a holiday road trip instead. You won’t have to worry about any flight delays and you’ll have a lot more control over your itinerary.

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Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®

Ben Walker, CEPF, CFEI®, is credit cards specialist. For over a decade, he's leveraged credit card points and miles to travel the world. His expertise extends to other areas of personal finance — including loans, insurance, investing, and real estate — and you can find his insights on The Washington Post, Debt.com, Yahoo! Finance, and Fox Business.