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

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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22 comments on “Is United Slowing Down Flights to Save Fuel? (Ask Cranky)

  1. My favorite schedule block has to be the ORD-DEL nonstop on AA. I have to think AA builds in some time on both ends for expected ATC congestion in DEL. For good reason, too, since either sitting on the taxiway waiting for clearance or circling a couple of times before landing is a common occurrence at DEL (and they can never seem to get the flight away from the gate on time at either ORD or DEL, but I digress). But when the anticipated congestion and/or gate delay doesn’t materialize, you end up getting in early. On the dozen or so times I’ve been on that flight, we’ve averaged something like 20-25 minutes early compared to the scheduled 5:15 AM arrival, with the extreme being a 45 minute early arrival once. Which would be a bonus, except customs at ORD doesn’t open until 5, so you end up just having to sit there!

    I’ve noticed the same thing flying in and out of NY-area airports; we once left the gate at LGA 30 minutes late but arrived in DFW 5 minutes early!

  2. Think about how many times you departed late and the pilot gets on and says we’ll try to make up the time, which they sometimes do. You have to think how unless you fly faster to make up the time which would mean they fly slower then they should in the first place, padded the flight time in the first place, or asked every airplane ahead of them if they can take cuts. Which is it I wonder? :-)

  3. A couple of years back United adjusted their schedules on me. It caused a 30 min. layover to turn into a 3.5 hr layover. They moved the arriving flight a few min. later, the departing flight a few min. earlier, and bam, no longer can I make the connection, but have to be booked on the next flight. So I called up and ask to be booked direct ORD-JAC instead of ORD-DEN-JAC. They told me “no can do” direct is a different fare. So after close to 3 hours on the phone, I was booked direct without a change fee. If they are changing their schedule for their convenience, my time should be worth SOMETHING.

    1. This happened to me too – a schedule change caused me to just be under the minimum connection time in ORD, so they booked me on the next flight 4 hours later. For me, however, there were no seats on any other flights (this was 3 weeks before the flight – I did not believe this, but what could I do?) Anyways, the morning of the flight I called them and switched to a CO flight through EWR which I would have preferred to start with.
      Somewhat related, do schedule changes sometimes happen to keep connections with certain flights (ex. if JFK-CDG changes, will SEA-JFK change as well to keep the connection)?

      1. I imagine that if there are heavy connecting flows across two flights, then they would make sure they connected. But if it’s not a route with a lot of people connecting then they probably don’t pay too much attention.

  4. I really wonder how much of this schedule ‘padding’ is to make it look like there are more ‘on time’ arrivals with the government stats.

    No one is going to complain on a 3hr flight if it only takes 2h45; but if you schedule for 2h45 and it takes 3h01 it counts against you with the government statistics.

    1. That’s a tradeoff that each airline has to decide if it’s worth making. Being “on time” is good for the public perception and marketing, but if it means schedules are significantly padded, then that’s going to result in lower aircraft utilization and higher costs. So each airline has to find the right balance.

      1. This is the problem lately. United is buying their On-time rating with Block. Its actually getting a little ridiculous and if you look close you can see American is starting to do it too.

        1. My favorite is when I took a flight JFK-BOS (connecting from PSA). The block time was 1:50, but the flight time is about 20 minutes once in the air – this was on an MD88 (!), not a smaller aircraft. Ended up sitting on the ground at JFK, leaving 1:40 ‘late’ and getting in 15 mins after scheduled.

          1. That is why the block time is for 1:50. They know that at the given time there will be congestion at JFK and it will take 1 hour+ to actually get in the air. ON longer flights it depends on the wind I have been 45 minutes early or an hour late because of jet stream or lack there of.

      2. BINGO, Cranky. Padding the flight times (more) adds HUGE COSTS in paying crews. Crews are paid by the flight time, block to block.

      3. it doesn’t wreck the schedule at all. Instead of (example)
        SEA 1000-1220 LAS 1320-1410 LAX
        you schedule
        SEA 1000-1235 LAS 1305-1410 LAX
        You take what is reality a 1 hour turn, and call it a 30 minute turn. In reality you have a 1hr for normal ops, and your flight is rarely late because you padded the schedule on both ends by 15 mins.

  5. Perhaps some of your pilot readers (or others) might wish to comment on what they do/don’t do to make up/lose time on various routes/flights. About all that those of us who aren’t pilots know is what we hear on Channel 9, UA. And, we somethines wonder: “Why did he/she do/say that?”

    Typically, a red-eye, LAX to IAD. I’m sure many pilots fly this route, many, many time, and my guess, some of the pilots are bored to death. So, we take off late, swing around to the east, and about over Daggett (up near Barstow, or whatever), the ATC guy comes on and advises the pilot…”We have direct Linden for you, if you want it. Now this, I believe, means the pilot can take a straight shot to DC, no vectoring, no turns, just set it and we’ll soon make up all the lost time.

    The pilot takes his/her time getting back to ATC, replying: “No, we’ll stay with as-filed.”

    So, we head east, flying way up north over Lake Michigan, just about to enter Ontario, down to Morgantown, into IAD, very late.

    Wjy did this happen? A million reasons, I’m sure, but just wondering.

    1. Hopefully some pilots will chime in, but there could be several reasons. One big one is that winds up north might be stronger on an eastbound flight, so even if you are going further in distance, it could still be quicker. It’s also possible that there’s bad weather on the direct route or rougher air, so the pilots want to stick with the path that they and their dispatcher designed.

  6. Hmmm. Just theoretical. What would you like more on an almost six hour flight: that it takes perceived 11 minutes longer, or that you pay perceived 20 dollars more, since more fuel is used? And what is the obsession with 10 minutes on this route? Are you a high powered broker who could make millions during this very short time in the span of a life? Don’t forget: it would take you much longer if you swim. Even if you sail. And on a final note: if you cannot plan those 10 minutes, one way or the other, you should not be in business. Stay home. Better, never again get out of bed.

    1. You do realize you can ask a question not knowing the answer in order to get the answer without really being concerned about the impact the change has on you, don’t you? It’s called CURIOSITY…

  7. I’ve flown on the SFO-Kauai flight several times. Since UAL started charging for check-in luggage, it takes an additional 15 minutes to cram every carry-on in the overhead bins. Especially on leisure flights between the mainland and Hawaii where every child passenger is entitled to a carry-on luggage. To expedite the boarding, UAL should consider free baggage check-in and charge for carry-on baggage. This way the TSA hassles are mitigated, the boarding becomes quicker, passengers and flight attendants are safer without falling carry-on baggage in overhead bins.

  8. “Think about how many times you departed late and the pilot gets on and says we’ll try to make up the time, which they sometimes do. You have to think how unless you fly faster to make up the time which would mean they fly slower then they should in the first place, padded the flight time in the first place, or asked every airplane ahead of them if they can take cuts. Which is it I wonder? :-)”

    You just made my day :D

  9. try to fly Copa Airlines to South America. You’ll have all the saving fuel for a lifetime. Once I flied GRU-PTY and took almost the same time to go GRU-MIA…

  10. This is good information because I just recently signed up for a United credit card. I love to travel and thought that “why not spend and gain miles?”. Do you know of any airlines that HAVE slowed down their flights due to fuel?

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