Chutzpah: Why a Six-Hour Flight Now Takes Seven

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delta-airlinesYour 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.

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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.

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.

A look at 50 different domestic flights on nine major airlines, including some regional-jet partners, found scheduled flights times were 17 minutes, or 10%, longer in airline schedules for this March compared to March 1996 schedules. I’ve kept those 1996 schedules on my bookshelf to make historical comparisons.The biggest percentage change was Delta Flight 1323, an 8:55 a.m. milk run from Atlanta to Orlando on a Boeing 757 that is scheduled for 103 minutes. That’s 39% longer than Delta Flight 265, a Boeing 767 that departed Atlanta at 8:50 a.m. in 1996 and was scheduled for only 74 minutes.

Only five of the 50 flights examined had the same scheduled block time or less. A Southwest morning flight from St. Louis to Chicago’s Midway Airport is now scheduled to be five minutes quicker than in 1996, reflecting fewer delays in St. Louis with the demise of Trans World Airlines.

This column examined block time inflation in 2007, and of the flights checked then, most have since had further increases. An early morning flight on UAL Corp.’s United Airlines from Philadelphia to Los Angeles topped six hours of scheduled time by adding 15 minutes over the past three years; a Northwest Airlines flight, now part of Delta, had a 29-minute addition to its schedule from Detroit to Phoenix since 2007.

Airlines say they have to build in delays so schedules reflect reality, especially at congested airports in the Northeast and at big, crowded hub airports. Actual flight performance has gotten more unpredictable because of problems in the air-traffic control system. In addition, planes are flying about 2% slower to save fuel costs, airlines say. Also, carriers have switched many flights to smaller regional jets, which don’t fly as fast as bigger planes and can also force planes behind them to slow down. Some airlines have bunched up schedules at big airports to increase connecting opportunities, adding to congestion at peak hours.

Aviation Inflation See a comparison of the time blocked out for selected flights in March 1996 and March 2010.
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AMR Corp.’s American added significant chunks of block time in late 2008 and early 2009 as part of an effort to boost the airline’s “on-time” performance. Other carriers say they have done much the same.

“It’s like getting a B-12 shot. You make the investment in reliability and give your operation a jump start,” said Neil Stronach, senior vice president of operations control at Delta Air Lines Inc.

But adding block time can be expensive for airlines. Adding minutes in large quantities can mean an airline can’t fly the same number of flights each day without adding airplanes to its fleet or giving up spare aircraft held in reserve for when mechanical problems arise. In addition, most airlines pay crews the greater of the actual time of a trip or the scheduled time. Increasing the scheduled time adds labor costs.

“Block time is the dumbest and most expensive way to buy on-time performance,” says Andrew Watterson, an airline consultant with Oliver Wyman, a unit of Marsh & McLennan Cos. “The better way is to improve operations at the airline” so it runs better.

The cost has been less of an issue during the recession, however, because so many flights have been removed from schedules for economic reasons that carriers have more aircraft sitting and extra crews available.

A lot of block time was added across the industry in 2009, Delta’s Mr. Stronach says, because airlines took advantage of the extra resources available.

“Average blocks will come back to more normal levels as the economy dictates,” he said.

It’s not just airlines monkeying with on-time rankings: It really does take longer to get some places in the U.S.

Economist Steven Morrison at Northeastern University says that since 1977, the amount of time a flight spends on the ground once it leaves the gate and before it parks at its destination gate increased 9.9 minutes on average by October 2009, the latest data available. The amount of time in the air jumped 6.1 minutes. Together, flights take 16 minutes longer. Mr. Morrison looks at DOT data on actual time, not scheduled time and his analysis holds all kinds of factors constant with 1977 such as the routes served and frequency of trips to get accurate comparisons.

“I can’t think of any reason other than congestion that ground time would increase,” Mr. Morrison said. Air time increases can reflect congestion in the sky as well as planes’ flight speed and the change of mix of aircraft.

Airlines use historical performance of flights to estimate scheduled time, so delays two years ago can still affect block times today. Carriers don’t build schedules trying to have every single flight arrive on-time-that would be too expensive and inefficient. Instead, they shoot for a happy median with a schedule that lets most flights arrive on-time, on average.

Mr. Watterson says typically an airline might aim for about 65% of flights getting to the gate exactly at the scheduled arrival time. The government on-time rate, typically 75% for the industry, is higher because DOT gives a 15-minute cushion to “on-time.”

Southwest, which has more flights domestically than any other airline, decided that instead of shooting for half of its flights historically arriving early and half past the scheduled time, it now wants closer to 75% of its flights to arrive early in a monthly schedule. That meant adding more minutes to flight schedules. Southwest also said it was responding to unpredictability in the national air space system.

“The inflation in block time is really because of more variability,” said Bill Owen, Southwest Airlines Co.’s lead schedule planner.

Even the Dallas-Houston service, one of Southwest’s original routes and still one of its most heavily traveled, has grown from 55 minutes to one hour and now to 1:05 in schedules. (Southwest only makes schedule adjustments in five-minute increments.)

One particular Dallas-Houston trip, Flight 39 leaving Dallas at 4 p.m., is scheduled for one hour and 10 minutes.

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  1. A major factor not mentioned in this article is the fact that the airlines have slowed down cruise speeds to save fuel. 40-50 years ago the Boeing 707 and the 747 used to cruise at 600mph (air speed), today the 737 (which can cruise faster) is optimally flown at 450mph (air speed). Back in the 60s jet fuel was about 5 cents a gallon, today it is over $2 a gallon. When flights land 15-20% early, it is more a function of tailwind (which affects ground speed) rather than cooking the books on scheduling.

  2. What’s the big deal. If a flight is usually late, add some time to the schedule so that passengers have a realistic expectation of when they will arrive.
    Bus companies do the same thing. The NJT bus from Lakewood to Manhattan used to be scheduled to take an hour and 30 minutes, now it’s 1:40.

  3. The airlines have been posting flights with
    increased hours so that they can arrive early at their destination and say we are an airline that is always on time. However,
    this does not quite work for the passenger whose excited they arrived early, phones a family member from the plane that just landed to start heading to airport for pickup bec. of early arrival…only to be disappointed to hear the captain announce there is no gate to pull into bec. they arrived earlier than their scheduled time. Now you have to sit half hour on the runway waiting for a gate to open…in a stuffy airplane with impatient passengers.
    Between the fees for bags, the end of meals served on airplanes, extra leg room fees,
    pillow and blanket fees, headphone fees, curbside check in fees and soon to be “use of toilet fees”, there’s not much to be excited about airplane travel.

  4. Jet Blues first flight from JFK to Chicago sits on the runway at chicago for an hour or more every single morning. Do not take Jet Blue first flight to Chicago if you dont want to sit on a runway for more than hour.

  5. I flew from Baltimore to Charlotte, for the holidays. My flight there said 1 hr 29 min from 1030 to 1129, and it was really 1040 to 1137. On the way back it said 1135a to 1258 but it was really 1228 to 136, but a delay


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