30 Connecting Panamanians

Last week, Continental Airlines told a colleague of mine, “The plane is late because we’re waiting for 30 connecting Panamanians.”

The “30 connecting Panamanians” excuse seemed suspect to me.  So, I decided to do a little research to test its plausibility.  Searching the schedule, I found that Continental does have a flight from Panama that was supposed to arrive in Houston shortly before my colleague’s scheduled flight to Newark.  I looked at FlightStats and found that Continental’s flights originating in Panama have a pretty poor on-time record, averaging a 20-minute arrival delay.  Between clearing passport control and transiting the airport, a typical delay could make getting to that Newark flight a challenge.  Panama City to New York via Houston is probably a reasonable routing, although CO does have a couple of non-stops direct to NYC.  I doubt those are cheap tickets… they start around $450 one-way in cattle class, before taxes.  Given all of that, the excuse could have been legitimate.

What makes this really suspect, however, is the level of detail in this excuse.  In the land of airline explanations, a delay for “30 connecting Panamanians” was one I hadn’t heard before and it seemed like more detail than your typical gatehouse agent would be willing to offer.  Airline excuses run from the mundane and typical “weather in Atlanta/Chicago/Denver/Newark” or “we’re waiting for an incoming crew” to the rarer but still mundane “the door won’t close.”  If you fly enough, you come to recognize that excuses like “the lav is broken because someone tried to flush a bag of pot” or “the ground crew rammed the plane with the tug” are reasonable and do happen.  However, it is the rare gate agent who’d actually announce those reasons to waiting passengers.  More likely, you’ll get “there’s a mechanical issue with your aircraft.”  (As if somehow it’s my $30M asset that I haven’t properly maintained.)

If they give you more information than this—say, some concrete details, then you should be asking real questions.  Alas, it seems that the more information you get, the less likely that is to be the real reason.  For example, the level of detail in “30 connecting Panamanians” is far too great to be a real excuse.  In this case, a throng of Panamanians running through the airport and rushing the gate never materialized.  As often happens in these situations, the story ultimately changed.  A 30-minute delay became a 60-minute delay, and then a 6-hour delay while United and Continental tried to sort out their flight system outage, which affected flights around the country.  Perhaps the gate agent was just trying to be creative, or maybe she had bad information.  I guess this logic breaks down when the excuse is “we’re cancelling all of our flights today because our flight systems are down.”  That one’s probably true.

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