The Los Angeles Times asks, “Are airlines padding flight times to improve on-time performance?” (HT: Paul H.)
About a decade ago, Joe Nolan, a semi-retired electrical engineer from Palm Desert, could expect to hop on a flight at Palm Springs International Airport and arrive in San Francisco 55 minutes later.
Now the flight is usually scheduled for about 90 minutes. Nolan suspects that airlines are allotting more time for each flight to make it easier to meet their arrival schedule.
“It tells me that the on-time statistics are worthless,” he said.
This gets it exactly backwards.
The LA Times cites a study suggesting “On average, the allotted time for flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco increased 8% from 1996 to 2015, the study found.”
Airlines adjust their schedules to reflect how long it will take to fly from one airport to another. And they absolutely hate it. Just a couple of extra minutes per flight means several more aircraft are needed to operate the same schedule for a large domestic carrier.
- If it were about marketing, airlines would show shorter flight times and sacrifice on-time performance. Many booking systems will display the quickest itineraries first. Customers are more likely to choose the shortest trip, while few dive into the on-time performance of a single flight.
- Longer flight times limit the ability of airlines to get the most out of each aircraft. Airlines don’t overschedule how long it takes to fly, sandbagging means higher labor costs for a flight. It means less efficient utilization of aircraft. It also means that shorter trips are less competitive by air compared to driving or other modes of transportation.
On-time statistics matter, but only in the aggregate. Airlines don’t want to be the worst because of negative attention that grabs, but that matters only at certain margins. Very poor on-time performance may cost bookings — corporate contracts will tend to gravitate towards better performing carriers who also offer strong price concessions. (This could change in the future if Delta’s performance started slipping markedly, gaming the statistics could help them avoid payouts to their corporate customers.)
On the other hand airlines want to achieve strong performance because poor performance is costly. But artificially good performance would still be costly. It means crew overscheduling. It also means paying out performance bonuses to employees based only the airline’s own marketing rather than actual performance.