Is United Slowing Down Flights to Save Fuel? (Ask Cranky)

I’ve got a follow-up for an old Ask Cranky post today. In January, I wrote about why Delta might change flight times by a few minutes here and there. I received a similar question from someone about a United flight recently, but with United, I can give a more exact answer. Let’s start with the question.

Is United slowing down its flights to save fuel? It looks like it. I had a San Francisco – Lihue (Kauai) trip booked already, but the schedule was just changed. The outbound flight now takes 16 minutes longer. The return flight takes 11 minutes longer. Unless United is afraid of getting fined for blowing arrival times, the only other reason I can think of is they’re slowing the plane down to save fuel. Have you heard anything?

The short answer is no. United is not slowing down its flights. (And it wouldn’t be fined for blowing arrival times unless it happens consistently for several months.) It’s just the way the airline handles its schedules.

When United loads its schedules, it does it in seasonal blocks. Those schedulesAsk Cranky are firmed up about six weeks before it starts and before that, they just use future schedules. (I’m told that this window is growing now that the airline is under new management.)

Future schedules are rough estimates based on past block times, but they don’t always take seasonality or ultimately, reality, into effect. Winds change seasonally as do airport operations so flight times can vary. There might also be issues around aircraft types changing since some airplanes fly faster than others. But when future schedules go into effect, they aren’t necessarily meant to be completely accurate. In this case, United’s future schedules weren’t perfect.

In fact, for Doug, the flight times in the future schedule were a bit aggressive so while it looks like United added a lot of time to the flights when the final schedules were released, in reality, these block times are 5 to 7 minutes faster than they were last year. So, no, United is not slowing down to save fuel. It’s just the way they handle schedules.

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