Airlines Pad Schedules, Lie About Flight Times

WSJ’s Scott McCartney explains “Why a Six-Hour Flight Now Takes Seven.”

airline-schedule-padding

Jets taxi at Los Angeles International Airport after an East Coast snowstorm caused the cancellation of many flights. Airlines are increasingly padding their schedules, in part, to deal with such events. (Getty Images)

our airline seat may not have much padding, but the airline’s schedule sure does.

Delta Air Lines Flight 715 from New York to Los Angeles now takes more than seven hours to fly across the country, according to the airline’s March schedule. That’s an hour longer than the same flight in the same type of aircraft took in 1996. A Phoenix-Las Vegas flight at Southwest Airlines that used to be scheduled at 60 minutes now gets 80 minutes. What was once a two-hour American Airlines trip from Chicago to Newark, N.J., now is two-and-a-half hours, according to the airline’s schedule.

Across the airline industry, carriers have been adding minutes to “block times”—the scheduled durations—baking delays into trips so that late flights officially arrive “on-time” and operations run better because flights pull into gates more often on schedule. Even though the recession has led airlines to cut flights and reduce congestion at many airports and in the skies, the move to pump up schedules has continued: Last year, most airlines added padding to scores of flights.

For some airlines, longer scheduled times for flights reflects the reality of inefficiency in the nation’s air travel system, which often can’t handle the volume of planes without delay, especially when bad weather hits. For others, lengthening scheduled arrival times boosts on-time rankings charted by the Department of Transportation: Those numbers can have a real effect on public perception. And in some cases, block times have grown simply because airlines have been making so many schedule changes as they have reduced capacity over the past two years. Flights that took off without a wait can now end up stuck waiting behind a line of jets because departure times have been changed.

I’ve flown enough over the years that I sensed this intuitively — I can’t count the number of times that we’ve been delayed on the ground but the pilot manages to “make up the time” — but the systemic nature of the practice is interesting.  I’ve flown from DC to Atlanta twice in recent weeks and the scheduled flight time was two hours, despite the flight itself taking only 1 hour, 25 minutes.

For travelers, it can seem like airlines are cheating. “If you leave late, you know you will arrive late. But now you leave late and arrive early,” said frequent traveler Steve Edmonds, who works for the city of Austin, Texas.

Mr. Edmonds was shocked when he recently flew from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Dallas and arrived 55 minutes early. “My first thought was they are padding to make their on-time ratings better,” he said. His shock turned to excitement when he realized he could catch an earlier connection to Austin. Then excitement boiled into frustration when the plane sat waiting for an empty gate. “From a customer standpoint, the most realistic schedule would make the most sense,” he said.

Apparently, this naive sap thinks the airlines operate a customer service business.  And he calls himself a “frequent traveler.”

What’s particularly infuriating of late is that the combination of idiotic measures added to the security theater performance in recent years, fuller flights, smaller overhead bins, and the airlines’ increasing tendency to charge fees for things that used to be considered part of the service* has radically increased the time for boarding and disembarking.   On shortish flights such as the DC-Atlanta route, it’s not uncommon to literally spend more time on the tarmac than in the air.

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*The other day, I heard one of the waitresses (I refuse to call them “flight attendants”) tell a passenger that he couldn’t have a pillow because “pillows are for first class;” next thing you know, they’ll be telling us that “coffee is for closers.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    What’s particularly infuriating of late is that the combination of idiotic measures added to the security theater performance in recent years, fuller flights, smaller overhead bins, and the airlines’ increasing tendency to charge fees for things that used to be considered part of the service* has radically increased the time for boarding and disembarking

    So what’s your point? Are you calling for nanny-state intervention? I tend to think of you as part of the “corporations must be allowed to do absolutely anything, and we do mean anything, to increase profits” crowd…

  2. Trumwill says:

    I would far rather they be conservative about flight-times than liberal. It makes connecting flights less likely to be missed.

    I also don’t understand the objections to full flights. It’s ultimately in everybody’s best interest that the flights be full. I feel strongly enough about this to the point to forgive the overbooking that goes on and has caused us heartburn in the past.

  3. Herb says:

    Sounds like someone’s been watching The Wire…and learning all the wrong lessons.

    Padding the numbers to create a distorted picture is never a good idea. But it always seems to work, no?

  4. James Joyner says:

    So what’s your point? Are you calling for nanny-state intervention? I tend to think of you as part of the “corporations must be allowed to do absolutely anything, and we do mean anything, to increase profits” crowd…

    I’d be okay with regulations requiring fee transparency to make comparison shopping easier but, otherwise, just general bitching here. My general solution to this is to drive whenever I can.

    The only area where I’d really like to see federal intervention is the business about keeping passengers hostage aboard the plane for hours while waiting for take-off.

  5. Gustopher says:

    I don’t really care if my flight takes 3 hours or 3.5 hours — I care that I make the connecting flight.

    Inserting padding to increase the confidence of the projected arrival time seems like a good idea to me. I don’t fly that often, but I’d much rather get to my vacation spot with minimal hassle than jump through hoops and deal with lost luggage or missed connections.

  6. Michael says:

    Across the airline industry, carriers have been adding minutes to “block times”—the scheduled durations—baking delays into trips so that late flights officially arrive “on-time” and operations run better because flights pull into gates more often on schedule.

    Am I the only one who reads this and thinks: “So, they’re just revising their estimates to make them more accurate.”?

    Seriously, if the old estimates always had flights arriving “late” and the new estimates have them more often arriving “on time”, that’s called a better estimate, not “padding”.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Seriously, if the old estimates always had flights arriving “late” and the new estimates have them more often arriving “on time”, that’s called a better estimate, not “padding”.

    Well, no. They’re only penalized for being later than the projected time, not earlier. So it’s not a measure of accuracy but a CYA move to avoid being dinged.

    And, of course, it means passengers have to arrive earlier than necessary and board — and sit on the ground crammed into the tiny seats — longer than necessary. And the joy is that, most of the time, the reward for arriving earlier than projected is having to wait on the tarmac for a gate.

  8. anjin-san says:

    And, of course, it means passengers have to arrive earlier than necessary and board — and sit on the ground crammed into the tiny seats — longer than necessary.

    Still don’t know what you are griping about. The GOP is all about the religion of the unfettered free market. Well, the market is at work here. This is what you get.

    Remember that great line from North Dallas Forty? “We’re not the team, you guys are the team. We’re the equipment”

    See James, in the GOPs grand vision, your job is to shut up, pay up, and be thankful for what you get. You support this philosophy, so you should probably stop griping about it. If you think this is bad, wait till you are about 10 years older and the medical insurers start f__king you hard…

  9. Highlander says:

    Well James me Lad, looks like you struck several nerves with this one. Air Travel is just such a delight for everyone these days. Just the thought puts them in a great mood.

    I spent 20 years with one of the major airlines. Airline deregulation was essentially the brain child of those two political genius Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy. The same breed of “vacant eyed and slack jawed” “leaders”, who now want to make sure everybody has excellent health care.

    After 9-11 it was painfully obvious that the airline business was on a terminal glide path to decline. I took early retirement,bought myself a Cessna, and never go near one of the discount cattle cars we used to call an airliner.(you get what you pay for or vote for in life)

  10. Brian J. says:

    Yeah, Dr. Joyner, you’re a bad, bad man for not living up to Anjin-San’s caricature of what the Republican Party stands for.

    Anyone who’s read you for any length of time clearly sees you’re a lockstep member of the Birchers and should not complain about corporate service as a consumer.

    Instead, you should let the government dictate health care to you and like it.

  11. Michael says:

    Well, no. They’re only penalized for being later than the projected time, not earlier. So it’s not a measure of accuracy but a CYA move to avoid being dinged.

    Being consistently early means they’re missing out on potential revenue. This goes for sitting on the tarmac waiting to depart or for a gate. Longer estimates means fewer flights. There is definitely an incentive for the airlines to not pad their schedules.

  12. anjin-san says:

    Instead, you should let the government dictate health care to you and like it.

    Well Brian, clearly you have been told what you think, so by all means, run with it.

    I don’t have to make a caricature of the GOP, it has pretty much tuned in to one of itself, and not in a good way. Very sad to see what has happened to the party I was once proud to belong to.