- Mayer and Sinai’s study also identified the real culprit: the deliberate overscheduling of flights at peak periods by major airlines trying to increase the amount of connecting traffic at their hub airports. Major airlines like United, Delta, and American use a hub-and-spoke model as a way to offer consumers more flight choices and to save money by centralizing operations. Most of the traffic they send through a hub is on the way to somewhere else. (Low-cost carriers, on the other hand, typically carry passengers from one point to another without offering many connections.) Overscheduling at the hubs can’t explain all delays—weather and maintenance problems also contribute. But nationally, about 75 percent of flights go in or out of hub airports, making overscheduling the most important factor.
I’ll leave aside the demonstrably false nature of the claim that low cost carriers don’t operate connecting flights (their model is having passengers wait on planes rather than having planes wait on passengers, which spreads workload throughout the day and minimizes their labor costs).
Airlines ‘bank’ flights, or cluster them together, for passenger convenience. Historically they’ve been able to earn a revenue premium based on passenger convenience. It’s hardly been an irrational strategy. Over the past few years this revenue premium has disappeared and low cost carriers have profited. In the meantime, airlines like American have depeaked their hubs in order to reduce costs since consumers were no longer demanding the quick connections with their wallets.
That said, it’s fairly short-sighted to blame airline scheduling when systemic changes are available that would solve the problem: slot pricing and exchange, airport privatization, and technological solutions. Slot pricing works well at Heathrow. Privatization works well in Britain, Canada, and Australia. But the holy grail, it seems to me, is
- Allowing planes and pilots to operate in the skies much like cars, with technology and communications that allow them to direct themselves while coordinating with each other (as a replacement for the current command and control model) offers some of the best hope for increasing the total capacity of the skies for air travel. Anything less seems like a temporary bandaid, albeit one with the potential to reallocate existing resources to their highest valued use.