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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