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Here is something that happened to me: my flight was 3 hours late because the plane arrived late. We were told that a further 3-hour delay was expected because our flight had lost the slots it had in the air traffic system, and we couldn't immediately get new slots due to very high congestion in the skies.

Nevertheless, all the passengers were immediately boarded, all the flight procedures were initiated (safety film etc.), the plane taxied towards the runway and immediately departed.

After landing I asked the pilot how the 3 extra hours we had to wait due to congestion suddenly "disappeared". He told me that congestion is fluid and sometimes things change.

How can things change so much so quickly? Is the pilot's explanation plausible or is there another story behind what we were told by the airline?

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    $\begingroup$ maybe some other plane was late, like yours? $\endgroup$ – yo' Apr 9 '15 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ Very interesting question but i think it is too broad to be answered here. $\endgroup$ – vasin1987 Apr 9 '15 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ When you have some resouce, be it landing slots or slots for some piece of airspace, that is slot controlled, it works a little like seats for a movie theater. If few people (flights) have reserved tickets, you show up & get your ticket (slot) right away & all is good. If everything is taken, you show up & get told you'll have a wait. BUT, if not everyone with a ticket (slot) can make it on time (say, another flight is delayed for MX), then that seat (slot) is now available for you, and your wait wasn't as bad as it might have been. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Apr 9 '15 at 16:23
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    $\begingroup$ Perfectly fair question, and while we probably won't conclusively determine THE exact details of the OP's situation, a discussion of slots and how much they can flex -- as was asked -- is entirely reasonable and not at all overbroad or unanswerable. Voting to reopen. $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Apr 9 '15 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ It would help if you would share information on the route you were flying on. $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Apr 9 '15 at 17:18
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It's a very credible explanation.

Slots to allocate scarce ATC and airport resources are created based on a known rate at which the airport/airspace can handle traffic, and they are apportioned out based on things like when the flightplans are filed, allowing for time enroute and expected arrival times. (This is a little general -- trying to give a big picture without getting mired in too many specifics of EDCT's, Ground Delay Programs, and so forth -- some of those details can be found in answers to this question.) When total demand is below capacity, it's common to be told to "contact Clearance Delivery 5 minutes prior to Push for your wheels up time to XYZ," and then on calling Clearance, you're either given a wheels-up time in about 15-20 minutes (i.e. push on time, taxi out, and take off with no delays) or even "released with no restrictions."

However, when demand is greater than capacity (most common when a bottle-neck is caused by something like bad weather at the destination reducing the allowable arrival rate, although also caused when a runway or an approach is unusable for some length of time), then things start to slow down, and you may be given a wheels up time farther off in the future.

Better to sit at the gate not burning gas than burning gas at idle out on a taxiway, or burning a LOT of gas holding in the air, but not most flyers' idea of a good time.

When things are HIGHLY saturated, as it sounds like the OP's scenario, you can't get your slot time issued until you are actually ready to go, but you (or your dispatcher) may have a sense for what sort of delay is likely. In these cases, you often can see where some aircraft have been given a significant delay, and anticipate something similar -- but you don't actually know what you'll get until you call.

Sounds like the crew for the OP's flight anticipated that they MIGHT be pretty far back in line, and explained things accordingly, but when they actually called then either conditions had improved, OR a particular slot was available (perhaps another flight had cancelled or been delayed) and they got it. That's not all that uncommon -- you call for your time, hoping for the best & prepared for the worst, and sometimes you get the "wheels-up" time 90 minutes out, and sometimes you get "can you be wheels up in 12 minutes?" and if the answer's "yes" then there's a quick high-five in the cockpit and "tell 'em to shut the door, we're going!"

Due to the lead times involved, when a slot opens up like this, ATC typically does NOT call every flight "in the queue" to shift everybody forward by 5 minutes; that slot either gets used by somebody, or it's just unfilled. But when we've told our passengers "you can get off the airplane, be back by X so we can leave," making adjustments to that X time isn't practical, so for us that time is pretty well set. Somebody else who IS boarded up & ready may get that fallout slot ahead of us, and when he does, good for him.

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    $\begingroup$ It may all also depend on where the bottleneck is. The pilot may think they will get a long delay because the other two flights got long delay, but the bottleneck may be somewhere enroute where they are going but you are not. Or the dispatcher may come with a different routing for your flight that avoids it. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Apr 11 '15 at 7:42

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