How Would You Have Handled This United Flight Delay?

Filed Under: Advice, United

I like to think that having flown over a million miles, I’m at least decent at figuring out what to do when things go pear-shaped. I’m reasonably savvy at using the available tools to find my own alternatives, and have enough experience to anticipate how things are likely to turn out.

But sometimes it’s still hard to decide what to do.

Now this story isn’t anywhere near as entertaining — or extreme — as when Tiffany routed through Europe to get from Los Angeles to New York during a snowstorm, though I imagine more than a few of you have faced something similar.

So I’m curious as to how you would have handled it.

My original itinerary was a nonstop

I was scheduled to fly from Denver to Orlando on a United nonstop flight, departing a bit after 8:00AM and getting in just before 2:00PM.

Denver to Orlando (

I got to the airport, made it through security, and settled into the lounge. Only then did I get the call that my flight was going to be delayed by two and a half hours due to the dreaded aircraft maintenance.

I say dreaded because in my experience not all delays are created equal. If you’re waiting for an inbound aircraft to arrive, you can check to see when it left — assuming that it has — and be reasonably assured that they’ll be able to turn the plane around 30-60 minutes after it arrives. Same if you’re waiting on crew. Those delays are fairly predictable.

But aircraft maintenance is something that I’ve seen drag on and on. They might not have realized the severity of the problem, don’t have the right parts, keep finding other problems, or who knows what. And that can make it hard to predict how long it will take to fix. I’ve seen delays on United due to maintenance start out at 15 minutes and slowly turn into three hours, a quarter hour at a time.

Anyway, I didn’t necessarily need to be in Orlando promptly, but I also didn’t especially need to sit around the Denver airport. So I figured I’d start looking for alternative options.

An alternative with a connection in Houston

The next United nonstop flight was leaving an hour or so later than mine at around 9:30AM. That clearly would have been the most logical choice but alas, it was fully booked.

Then I noticed that there was a connecting option via Houston that was leaving around 8:30AM. It ultimately wouldn’t get me to Orlando until 4:30PM, roughly 10 minutes after my delayed flight was projected to get in.

So I could switch to that, but would I really gain anything? Or would I actually get in later?

At this point, the decision seemed to come down to just how much I trusted United’s estimate of the delay. If I believed that the flight would depart as projected, staying the course would be the best alternative.

But if they ended up being wrong…

Comparing the secondary factors

Since I was having trouble deciding, I started thinking through the various other factors that were in play.

On the delayed flight, I had a prime aisle bulkhead seat, which I consider equivalent to the exit row on United, thanks to the bulkhead not going all the way to the floor. So swapping to some middles in the back wouldn’t be appealing.

But sure enough, there were exit row aisles or windows on each of the alternative flights, so the seating would be roughly the same. The upgrade chances were slim, but then again, they were on my delayed flight too. So all of that was a wash.

And finally, not that it should matter much, but if I stayed in Denver for the 2.5 hours, I could work in the lounge. If I took the connection, I could have lunch at the Amex lounge. That had me thinking about chicken thighs. And chorizo gravy.

Amex Lounge Houston

In the end, I decided to take Tiffany’s advice for IRROPS (and a zombie apocalypse for that matter), and keep moving rather than stay put.

Taking action always seems to feel better than just accepting your fate.

So how did it turn out?

Shortly after I boarded my flight to Houston, I checked the app and noticed that United had swapped equipment for my delayed flight. Apparently they were no longer waiting to fix the plane, but rather for another flight to come in. Had I known that before boarding, I would have probably stuck with the original.

And indeed, the delayed flight got to Orlando at about 4:15PM, just as projected.

I, however, wasn’t so lucky. My Houston to Orlando flight ended up being delayed by 30 minutes, so we didn’t actually arrive until close to 5PM.

So I basically saw my delay and then raised it by close to an hour. 

Now I’m curious, what would you have done in this situation?

  1. My rule is to never let the last workable connection without a known issue depart without being on it. If there was a known issue on your original flight, you did the right thing by moving to an alternative without one.

  2. Agreed with Sean. Although being at a hub the odds of an aircraft swap were higher because they have more planes available. But if I was an outstation (like say Orlando on the way back), I would have switched without question because I think the odds are more than 50/50 that the original flight is cancelled with no plane to replace it.

  3. I’m with Sean M. United is NOTORIOUS with the rolling 15-minute delay. I feel bad for the GAs that have to deal with how poor United’s logistics are and the trickle-down effect that has when pax become irate because GAs don’t know anything because “big United” won’t tell them a damned thing. As soon a I see a delay caused by “maintenance”, I immediately know United is 100% full of crap on the estimated departure times and I call to be rebooked immediately.

  4. I need to keep going. I feel like I am getting somewhere. I can’t stay still. I would have done IAH or ORD even IAD or would have flown into FLL and Silver Airways it up.

  5. I tend to stick it out for direct flights, since a connection adds a variable you have no control over. Say, what if your new first leg gets delayed and you miss your connection. If I’m already connecting, I go for leaving the airport ASAP and dealing with what comes.

  6. In Denver, UA’s giant hub, I would stick with the original. Much more likely that the maintenance is completed or a plane swap occurs there. Same with Houston. Anywhere else and I’d go for the Plan B.

  7. Not being in a rush to reach orlando by any specific time should have answered your question. Trading a nonstop delayed flight for a potentially on time connecting flight is at best an equal proposition – particularly when you don’t have a deadline for the arrival city. You have to factor in potential delay at houston as well. i probably would have stayed put.

    But you do have a point with chorizo gravy…..

  8. I probably would have stuck with the original flight given that you were at a hub. I’d like to think the airlines are getting better at working these irregular operations based on personal experience over the past few years. The worst experience I’ve had – and it’s happened twice in the past, is ATC problems – either a strike (France) or a computer breakdown (London) – no solutions possible and very, very long delays.

  9. It really depends on many factors but in this particular case I’d have changed to the later direct flight or stay put for my original flight, depending on the mood. Once I was flying PHX to LAX and the flight was delayed 3.5 hours. I decided to drive instead 🙂

  10. Play the odds. In this case, I would have made the same decision to take another route with the likelihood it would get me to my destination earlier. Mtx delays are too unpredictable – this is especially true with UA.

  11. Upgrades are more likely to clear on your delayed flight as some First Class customers (revenue or pre-upgraded) are likely to take an alternate route or cancel their trip all together.

  12. I agree with Tiffany to keep moving. My flight from ORD to HKG was delayed to the point where it would make my connection in Hong Kong a bit dicey.

    Taking the advice of the agent in the lounge, I changed my itinerary and flew to LAX to fly on Air New Zealand to Australia instead. This caused me to actually arrive in Perth 30 minutes earlier than my old itinerary, albeit without my luggage (it didn’t make it off my HKG flight in enough time).

    As for my original flight, it arrived nearly four hours late in HKG and I would have missed my connection and had to overnight there. So overall, it worked out in my favor to change my flight, and I know that 9/10 my baggage would have been routed properly.

  13. I think you did the right thing. I don’t think UA or AA have a sufficient handle on their operations to really know for sure how long a delay will be, so you’re better off jumping to an alternate that isn’t delayed (especially knowing any possible future delays would be at a bigger hub where the airline has better options for recovery)

  14. Going through this exact scenario with American now.

    Originally booked on 2445 MEM to DFW
    Flight got delayed till 6pm and then I attempted to get on the 2pm delayed flight that left shortly before 4pm (5919). Didn’t get on it and called AA to switch to the 7pm flight 3567. So now I’m confirmed on 3567 and on standby on my original flight 2445.

    Both flights have their inbound coming from Dallas. Flight 2445 had a maintenance issue and they swapped the aircraft in Dallas for one that was coming from Boston.

    So hopefully I’m able to get on which ever one gets here first and is ready to board first!

  15. I would have stayed put. Unless the time difference between the delayed flight and the new route was more than 3-4 hours I generally don’t think it’s worth the trouble. Also, because they said the delay was over 2 hours I tend to believe that it will be around that time frame. Whereas if they said 15 minutes I would be preparing to find alternate solutions because chances are good that 15 min delay will end up being hours. For me, it’s less frustrating dealing with one 2 hour delay over 1hr 45min delay in 15min increments.

  16. No delay is pleasant, but on a recent United flight from Chicago to Amsterdam I experienced a 24 hour delay due to maintenance issues. After sitting on the tarmac for 3 hours, we were deplaned and told to wait for further notice. After waiting in the terminal for 2 1/2 hours, it was announced the flight would leave in the morning although a specific time wasn’t given. Passengers were shuttled to a nearby suburban hotel without their luggage. Early the next day, a 4p.m departure was announced. That departure was delayed again! The flight left a full 24 hours late! Passengers were compensated with a meager $200 travel voucher for a future flight. United rightly deserves it dismal reputation and negative publicity.

  17. It depends on your risk-reward appetite. I too would be inclined to play the odds. (Although I can get more specific information via my cabin crew husband and his extensive network of information; is that the flying equivalent of card counting?)

    So long as you keep moving and accept that there’s a risk you may arrive later than if you’ve waited, and have sufficient flexibility to absorb delays, then you’ll be fine. I think that keeps life a bit more interesting than sitting and waiting and hoping. Plus the added bonus of visiting other airport lounges; CHORIZO GRAVY (!!!!!!!!) is a huge incentive.

  18. I think the bigger question would be Is there a fee to change flights? I recently booked a flight with a deliberate long layover as the first leg was international and you just never know how long that can be. As it turns out it was surprisingly fast. I found an earlier connecting flight (also United), but of course they wanted a change fee for me to take it.

  19. First, I agree with Mike. You have to try and make the chorizo gravy. If that doesn’t work, I 100% think you should change flights. Not only did you have a little more assurance about what was going on, you got a good lunch at the Amex lounge. Might as well!

    I will say this: I was flying United from SFO to ORD to MEM back in December, and my SFO to ORD flight got delayed due to a mechanical issue. They told me they could reroute through Denver, or I could wait it out and see if they fix the problem and hopefully make my connection in Chicago to MEM. I took my chances, missed my connection, and got put on an American flight that night to MEM. Not only did I get all of my miles for United, I got American miles, and upgraded on my American segment since I hold elite status with them! I’d say that it worked out.

  20. You’re an MIT engineer. I didn’t see any parametric models of the alternatives involved, LOL! I have over 2 Million. If they board you and then take you off the plane to fix a maintenance problem, go for alternative routes 100% of the time.

  21. A typically North American “decision problem” … in Europe you can’t get rebooked on another flight unless the original flight is cancelled or you are on a fully flex fare (and then they would charge your fare difference …). Period. Under the circumstances described, in Europe, you’d be locked in to your original flight.

  22. As a former flight attendant who had commuted to / from LAX to DTW once a week for five years, I would stick with my original flight. Quite often people changed to alternative flights, and I ended up with whole row to myself or even with a newly available first class seat. I wonder when a flight delays and you decide to switch to an alternative flight which leaves before your delayed flight, do you still get covered by credit cards’ delayed flight compensation policies?

  23. I would have changed flights like Sean. I always prefer moving to being stuck in traffic, even if it takes a little longer.

  24. I always stay put. I’ve been burned way too many times by following the next shiny object (er, flight) only to have it go to hell along the way. It’s like switching lanes at the grocery store thinking that the other lane is faster.

    It rarely is.

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