What’s an ATC delay? Here’s what can cause them – and what Alaska Airlines is doing behind the scenes

Illustration of Alaska Airlines planes lined up at the gates.

Few things are as frustrating as sitting on an airplane waiting out an “ATC delay.”

ATC is airline-speak for Air Traffic Control, a program governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. It manages the flow of planes as they arrive and depart airports. ATC’s top priority: safety. That includes maintaining a safe amount of separation between aircraft.

In perfect conditions, planes can fly closer together. When airport conditions deterio­rate – wind, snow, poor visibility, or even too many flights scheduled in the same time period – controllers ensure the highest levels of safety by requiring more space between planes as they arrive or depart. Instead of 60 airplanes arriving every hour, for instance, ATC might restrict the flow to 30 airplanes. Of course, that slower rate creates a backlog.

Airplanes must wait their turn in the air, at the departure gate or on the taxiway. Other times, airlines cancel flights to help minimize the snowball effect of delays, and passengers are rebooked on the next available flight.

What causes ATC delays?

When you’re waiting for your flight on a blue­bird day, it can be hard to believe that weather is the biggest culprit, causing nearly 80 percent of all delays. And it’s not always the weather at the airport you’re departing – it’s usually the weather along your route or at your destina­tion. Some delays are seasonal (like snow and thunderstorms), while others are unusual. Poor visibility from wildfire smoke, for instance, repeatedly delayed flights in the Pacific North­west and California this past summer.

In a more common scenario, San Francisco’s visibility-impairing fog regularly complicates schedules.

Air travel has seen huge growth over the past decade, and it has been difficult for air­ports to meet demand for more runways and gates.

“We’re taking a proactive approach to manage air traffic on a day-to-day basis,” says Todd Sproul, Alaska’s vice president of system operations.

What’s Alaska doing about it?

Air Traffic Control is an ongoing process. Multiple times each day, Alaska’s ATC chief dispatchers communicate with the FAA in Virginia about what’s happening in the sky. Alaska’s Flight Operations ATC team not only listens to the FAA, they also propose changes to the FAA’s requirements to minimize the impact of delay programs.

Alaska recently hired Steven Osterdahl as director of air traffic and air space operations. He brings 33 years of FAA experience.

“Alaska Airlines is investing time, energy and resources to operate as efficiently as possible, but we’re also working with the FAA with an eye toward the future to mitigate additional delays as air traffic continues to grow,” Osterdahl said.

Working with pilots, the ATC tower and the FAA, Alaska’s team has made more efficient use of Seattle’s runways, which has decreased the number of departure and arrival delays.

Longer term, Alaska’s Air Traffic, Dispatch and Systems Operations teams are continually seeking creative solutions to address delays, regardless of cause. The team studies weather patterns, rush-hour travel times and seasons, airport configurations – any number of vari­ables, in search of ways to schedule the most reliable flight times possible.

How to minimize the impact of a delay


  1. Since Alaska Airlines pilots all receive similar corporate simulator training and your flying B-737 aircraft with similar performance, why not use a military style MARSA tailored to 14CFR121 for departures and arrivals that would allow multiple aircraft to depart and arrive at the same time? The scheduling and MTX offices would have to be involved to insure the aircraft with the heavier fuel load was #2 and it might actually take a supervisor of flying to physically check each aircraft prior to takeoff to insure proper stab trim settings for a MITO.

  2. As a former AT controller (ANC and ADQ) it’s great to read a nonjudgmental explanation of ATC delays from my favorite airline. Thanks for not making these hardworking men and women the “bad guys”.

  3. You guys are doing an awesome job!!!

  4. About time Alaska Air addressed this issue. It has been a pain over the last year; and has caused me to reconsider travel from AK to lower 48, especially into the Northwest.

  5. I’m very glad that many ATC delays can be anticipated, well other than the first flight of the day, and we get to wait at the gate rather than on the plane. That’s been my experience in the past 6 months or so.

  6. Get used to ATC Delays as Alaska gained a hub in SFO the ATC delay Capital of the nation. I’d move that whole operation to SJC or OAK. SFO will have 3 hr delays while SJC will have none. SFO just isn’t reliable

  7. I love that AK Air is proactive and not reactive!! You are still my favorite airline – by choice!

  8. Happy to receive information…often wondered re ATC

    1. As a pilot, I am aware that gate departure time slots are important. Therefore passenger boarding protocol plays a huge part. Clearly the plane needs to be loaded rear seated passengers first and not the chaotic aisle blocking free for all currently in use. Next, overhead luggage. A laptop, purse or baby bag ok no charge. Back packs, roll ons, overstuffed suitcases, 25 dollars each or no charge if checked . With the present efficient baggage handling now in use, there is no excuse for waddling passengers with too much carry ons blocking the aisles and inconsiderately delaying departure. Delays cost money and compromise arrival time slots. Reward checked baggage clients, don’t penalise themb

      1. I would take the boarding process one step further. Since Alaska Airlines flies B-737 aircraft, which are all pretty similar in seating configuration, why not organize the gate area to look like the seating of the aircraft? You would load from the aft forward, and from the windows to the aisle. In the boarding area, the A & F seats would be closest to the aisle and the C&D seats would be furthest from the aisle. If you boarded rows 25-32 first, the line up would be 32A, 32F, 32B, 32E, 32C, 32D then on to row 31 etc. The tangle up in the aisle on the aircraft would be eliminated because it was regulated at the gate seating area.

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