Airline Schedule Padding Isn’t Cheating

There are plenty of people out there who think the airlines are trying to “cheat” when they pad their flight schedules to account for delays, but I don’t get it. That is not what’s going on here. What they’re really doing is trying to delicately balance operational efficiency and customer satisfaction, believe it or not.

Scott McCartney at the Wall Street Journal took this on recently and started digging around. Evan at FlightCaster took it one further and analyzed all flight times. So what’s the result. Since 1996, schedule times have bumped up 8 minutes on average.

Of course, that number isn’t very relevant. You need to look at the biggest pain points to see where the most egregious increases are. JFK saw an average 27 minute increase on departures while Continental’s late afternoon departures from Chicago to Newark bumped up a whopping 45 minutes. My question is . . . so what?

Some passengers think this is an evil plot to make it look like they have a stellar on time record, but that makes absolutely no sense. First of all, think about it from a passenger standpoint. If you book a flight leaving at 8a and arriving at 4p, isn’t that what you expect? Does it matter if you arrive a couple minutes early?

Sure, it’s annoying when you arrive 45 minutes early and your ride is nowhere to be found, but that’s an anomaly. Think about it from the airline side. Do they want to pad their schedule? Absolutely not. If they could schedule their flights to take less time, they could cram more flights into a day and bring their costs down. That would be fantastic. So why do they pad?

Well think about it. Gate-to-gate flight times have actually gone up in the last 15 years. As airports have become more crowded, they’ve been forced to spend more time taxiing or holding in the air. And it’s not just blanket changes like that. Weather patterns matter as well. If you have particularly stormy time of year, you might build in some extra time for circling. During the winter, the airlines have longer block times on westbound flights across the country because the headwinds are stronger.

This is a science. The airlines have to delicately balance the desire to cram as many flights in a day as possible with the need to present passengers with an on time experience. People and computers are constantly working on trying to find the optimal block times, but that’s easier said than done. Things change often, and that means they can never be perfectly right. But they certainly aren’t trying to cheat.

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37 Comments on "Airline Schedule Padding Isn’t Cheating"

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Andrew
Guest
Airlines probably would’ve saved themselves some grief years and years ago when all of this was devised to instead of of naming specific takeoff and landing times, use windows: “Must be at gate by 3. Pending no weather, FAA, or other delays, flight will be airborne between 3:15 and 3:45. Pending no delays or diversions, plane will land between 5:30 an 5:45.” Or whatever. Offering a precise time (“Takeoff: 3:17 p.m.”) sets up unreasonable expectations in an uninformed public. Now perhaps as far as the FAA, airport, airline, and pilots are concerned, the “real” targets are 3:17 and 5:41, for… Read more »
MIchael in MKE
Guest
I agree that the padding is not really cheating. In January we were on a US Airways flight from Chicago to Phoenix and it snowed heavily the night before into the early morning hours and the flight was scheduled for 4 hours. Once we deiced which took about 20-30 minutes our flight time to Phoenix was only 3 hours in the air giving us an extra 30 minutes in Phoenix. The captain even said they add the extra time just incase of these situations. Its actually pretty smart on the airlines part to do this in case of those situations… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
In the old days airlines wanted to show they were faster then the other guy at getting you from point A to point B. You know, 36 hours instead of 48 hours. Now I would rather know a ‘real’ time then some on paper time. If they were padding the time so it looked like their flights were never late, then why do we still have late flights. So that should show they are just trying to give a more accurate time. It helps their planning also to know when flights really will depart and arrive. I remember when the… Read more »
A
Guest
What’s interesting is when a flight leaves well behind schedule and arrives “on time.” Had a NW captain tell me once that our late departure time (45 minutes) was made up by 1) getting clearance to fly the route as the crow would fly it, and 2) going faster and burning more fuel. Flying way back in the 80’s (wheels up to touchdown) sure seemed to be faster, even on a present day flight where we aren’t put in a hold pattern to wait for a runway. God knows I was much more impatient back then so noticing a difference… Read more »
JW
Guest

I don’t mind at all.

Also, you don’t mention it, but this becomes much more important when connecting.

I rarely connect and fly a lot of transcons. I enjoy getting home early.

margaretgreg
Member

Would much rather have a realistic time schedule in order to make my connection than have a “hoped for” flight time that leaves me holding the bag at my connecting airport!

Mantini
Guest

Actually, I’ve had flights arriving 25-45 minutes early (the longer the flight, the more egregious – trasnsoceanic flights are the worst) on a fairly regular basis, and it is obnoxious, both as a passenger and as someone picking up people at the airport. I find it, surprisingly, to be more annoying than arriving late. I’d rather be 5 minutes late because it took us longer than expected to taxi, than 40 minutes early because they padded their schedule.

If they need to pad their internal schedules (turn-around times) then fine, but there’s no reason to take us along with them.

Hunter
Guest
Someone was recently complaining to me about this “plot” of the airlines to fool everyone. The example I shot back was this: How long does it take to travel from downtown LA to Santa Monica by car? Well, technically, you can do it in 15-20 minutes if you’re the only car on the road. But, we all know that’s not the case. Depending on the time of day, it can actually take you an hour or more. So, if you were unfamiliar with LA and asked someone that question, would you want them to tell you 20 minutes? Of course… Read more »
Scott
Member

The problem is with the FAA, and the public paying too much attention to the ‘on time’ statistic. If the FAA classified a flight as late if it departed OR arrived more than 15 mins past schedule, the statistics would be much more telling, and would catch the artificial padding, problem solved.

It’s just a way of cheating the numbers in a world where it’s very easy to compare. Claiming we’re 93% on time, is really like advertising a cheap fare with a ton of surcharges. We all know it isn’t true, but put up with it.

jaybru
Member
Cranky, I’m sure you have a better insight into this stuff than most of us, well, me anyway. We all have experienced schedule issues, and often we think it’s some manipulative scheme. Perhaps we’ve experienced some unbelievable early arrivals and long waits to get a gate, or else a terrible delay and no reason given. We chalk it up to the poor customer-service we’ve come to expect from this industry, yet operationally, things may have gone the best as was possible. Still, it comes down to whether or not you did the best you could for your customers. I take… Read more »
rob
Member
The people that complain about this are the same ones who wonder why it takes 3 hours to fly from New York to LA and 9 Hours to get back. Clueless. But I recently experienced three flights, two trans-Pacific and one trans-Atlantic, where the in flight display showed us traveling at a blistering 425 MPH. All three flights were at least an hour late. Same thing with a Tokyo to Singapore flight – 90 minutes late and 420 MPH. I don’t think that was headwinds… Some honesty would, indeed be nice. You’ve been putting out some great information – makes… Read more »
Stephen
Guest
So, in a world where manufacturers manage JIT supply, retailers reduce their costs and supply time through using efficient fulfilment, international enterprises speed their processes through technology and lean process management, the airline industry does, well, nothing. OK I’ll grant that they are at the mercy of an inefficient ATC system, that airport operators and airlines themselves cram their schedules with small aircraft at busy hours, that there’s an almost total lack of sense in the industry … etc. Oh and yes, snow, wind and rain really do upset things all year round. But this article strikes me as one… Read more »
Paul
Guest
It is a fact that padding is happening. As a pilot for a major domestic carrier, virtually every single leg I fly is padded to the extent that we arrive consistently early by 10 -15 minutes. From my vantage point, the on-time statistics are becoming a race of which airlines can pad the most but still remain within some ill-defined, time boundary without being too outrageous about it. The padding is coincident with reduced block hour scheduling, which results in lower aircraft utilization rates. Instead of an aircraft flying around 11 hours a day, it’s down to 9 or 10.… Read more »
MeanMeosh
Guest
Mantini wrote: Actually, I’ve had flights arriving 25-45 minutes early (the longer the flight, the more egregious – trasnsoceanic flights are the worst) on a fairly regular basis, and it is obnoxious, both as a passenger and as someone picking up people at the airport. There’s a factor at work on those long trans-continental flights that the airlines really have little control over – wind speeds in the jet stream. I’m assuming the block times for a flight from, say, DFW to LHR are computed based on some kind of average, using expectations of headwinds, tailwinds, etc. If those end… Read more »
Paul
Guest

@ Paul:

It’s absolutely true that the long haul flights are much more susceptible to en-route winds. But as other have stated, the padding is happening in addition to jet stream behavior.

More often than not, an aircraft is not cleared for takeoff immediately, especially at busy airports. Crossing runways, taxiways and airspace ahead have to be clear. Additionally, takeoff performance can be a factor when leaving from shorter runways. You won’t see a rolling take off from Orange-County John Wayne airport, for example.

Nick Barnard
Member
Mantini wrote: If they need to pad their internal schedules (turn-around times) then fine, but there’s no reason to take us along with them. Okay, you can sit in your cramped airline seat for 45 minutes after the plane has arrived. The rest of us can sit in a slightly more comfortable seat at the airport. Scott wrote: The problem is with the FAA, and the public paying too much attention to the ‘on time’ statistic. If the FAA classified a flight as late if it departed OR arrived more than 15 mins past schedule, the statistics would be much… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
Hunter wrote: How long does it take to travel from downtown LA to Santa Monica by car? Well, technically, you can do it in 15-20 minutes if you’re the only car on the road. But, we all know that’s not the case. Depending on the time of day, it can actually take you an hour or more. So, if you were unfamiliar with LA and asked someone that question, would you want them to tell you 20 minutes? Of course not. You’d want a real world time estimate that reflects actual conditions so you could plan your trip appropriately. Good… Read more »
Ron
Guest
How about boarding time padding? On two recent flights (LAX–BOS on United, PHL–LAX on US Airways) I arrived at the gate at the time printed on my boarding pass (30 minutes prior to departure), to find that the flight was almost completely boarded and I was one of the last people to get on the plane. Is this a new trend? And why does the printed boarding pass not reflect the earlier start of actual boarding? I assume they won’t close the door on someone who arrives at the printed time, but that person might end up having to gate-check… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

Rob Lipman wrote:

The people that complain about this are the same ones who wonder why it takes 3 hours to fly from New York to LA and 9 Hours to get back. Clueless.

That’s funny but so true. Many moons ago when I worked at TWA we got that question alot. Or one of my favorites was ….’why does it only take 2hrs to fly from Paris to New York, but 3hrs from NY to Los Angeles’. Like you said, clueless.

James
Guest

Mantini wrote:

Actually, I’ve had flights arriving 25-45 minutes early (the longer the flight, the more egregious – trasnsoceanic flights are the worst) on a fairly regular basis, and it is obnoxious, both as a passenger and as someone picking up people at the airport. blockquote>

Myself and everyone else I know does a quick check of the arrival time online at home or on their mobile device before heading to the airport to pick someone up.

You can even set up a one time alert to text you the info.

Neil S
Guest

Arriving early would be fine with me if the gate was empty when we landed. But the pilot bragging about being 30 minutes early when the wheels hit the runway, only to be told 5 minutes later that we have to wait 20 minutes for the plane at our gate to leave is infuriating.

BF
Guest

@ David SFeastbay:

Do these same people wonder if there is a time machine that allows you to arrive in Los Angeles before you left Sydney?

The Traveling Optimist
Guest
There are a few stones left unturned in this discussion: a) Travel Agency Displays. As mentioned earlier, in the days of travel agency dominance each airline made it’s bread and butter by trying to be “Line One, Screen One” of an availability display. That meant scheduling “blue sky” for the shortest possible elapsed time in order to get the most favorable screen position in front of travel agencies. Add in to that the 15-minute window for DOT ontime statistics and virtually every flight in the system operated late. Not good for business. In a sense, THAT was really cheating because… Read more »
Ed Casper
Guest

“Airline Schedule Padding Isn’t Cheating”

Right! It’s honesty.

tharanga
Guest
There’s some cause and effect being lost here. They have to pad the schedule because they’re overscheduling with respect to the airfield or airspace capacity. So the gate-to-gate time goes up. And then one little glitch, and it all goes down the tubes. A solution would be to use larger planes at a lower frequency, but people want the flexibility that comes from having an RJ every 45 minutes. And then they complain about flying on a RJ. But they’d rather have that, and padded times and the whole system balanced on knife’s edge, rather than less frequency.
Scott
Member
Nicholas Barnard wrote: Scott w You care if an airline leaves late, and arrives on time, because then you know that it’s contributing to a statistic that is meaningless. If the FAA want the on-time statistics to mean anything, they need to take into account departure and arrival times. I realize that trans-oceanic winds can make a huge difference, but let’s look at the three scenarios Scenario 1: Planes leaves on time, arrives on time. This is good, you get 100% in the FAA “on time sweepstakes” Scenario 2: Plane leaves late and arrives late. Because you arrived late you… Read more »
AirlineWONK
Guest

“Think about it” three times in seven paragraphs. Annoying; think about it.

Zack Rules, Albany, NY
Guest
Zack Rules, Albany, NY

I remember taking Jetblue from Buffalo to JFK back in 2000 and it took 50-55 minutes. Now it takes at minimum 1:20 or even 1:45 on Delta Express. At one point, Delta scheduled one of their JFK-BUF flights as taking 2:00 (although that may have been on a DH2).

Nick Barnard
Member

@ Scott:
So basically you’re saying the FAA shouldn’t publish ontime stats?

If the FAA isn’t going to own their mistakes, then they shouldn’t expect the airlines to own theirs n

frank
Guest
Well think about it. Gate-to-gate flight times have actually gone up in the last 15 years. As airports have become more crowded, they’ve been forced to spend more time taxiing or holding in the air. And it’s not just blanket changes like that. Weather patterns matter as well. If you have particularly stormy time of year, you might build in some extra time for circling. During the winter, the airlines have longer block times on westbound flights across the country because the headwinds are stronger. ================================================ BINGO…………….Awesome article, Cranky! You explained things very well. Furthermore, I INVITE your readership to… Read more »
malbarda
Member
I agree padding makes sense in that it takes into consideration all the eventualities that are part of every day travel. We need to address these issues like ATC, gate availability, etc. Heck, even the weather: we need to start flying on bio fuel… One of my biggest gripes however is the absolute nonsense of all planes trying to get out of and into an airport in an unrealistic time-frame like between 6:30 and 9:00 AM. How many flights are scheduled to leave and arrive at for instance La Guardia at that time? Someone mentioned “boarding padding” – and yes,… Read more »
gtrjay
Guest

Although I see your point in ‘padding’ I have to disagree.

If I am late to work 15 minutes every morning, I am still late. No matter how you slice it, it’s still late

ASFalcon13
Guest
Scott wrote: Nicholas Barnard wrote: Scenario 4: Plane leaves late and arrives on time. Because the airline fudged the enroute time numbers, they get a point from the FAA. Basically they lied in order to pass the “on time” test. Airlines are in the business of ‘looking good’ with respect to the ontime numbers, and #4 makes them look like they scored, when in reality all they did was move the goalposts. If you’re going to measure something, you should measure something where the participants can’t change the rules. Your statement make an erroneus assumption: that the aircraft is going… Read more »
davidwhotz
Member
A wrote: As a side note, remember those “cowboy” captains that would start winding up the jets while the aircraft was still turning the corner to line up with the runway? Time seemed a higher priority in the past. I had this happen this past weekend and couldn’t help but smile. The captain took his little CRJ-900 and just whipped it around the corner and into a smooth take off. Smaller plane + long runway = do it as you will. I actually commented to the captain as I was getting off that I noticed it. He laughed a little… Read more »
frank
Guest

@ malbarda:

New York La Guardia Airport today is 78-85 flights per hour (arrivals and departures) in Optimum weather

David Z
Guest

Greg Edwards wrote:

Would much rather have a realistic time schedule in order to make my connection than have a “hoped for” flight time that leaves me holding the bag at my connecting airport!

That maybe depends on how one defines “realistic” if accounting for other factors like weather, traffic, etc.

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