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July 18, 2024
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(Co-authored with Timothy O’Neil-Dunne)

Lost in the pandemic was a pause in an ongoing epidemic of almost Biblical proportions. We are talking about the US practice of bluffing true flight times AKA schedule padding. With the resurgence of planes in the sky as we emerge from lockdowns – yes – schedule padding is BACK BABY!

Airline schedule padding has a real cost.  Based on US DoT data, we estimate that in 2019 the nine largest US airlines could have bought (for cash) over 43 brand new planes (estimated at $60m each for a new narrow-body aircraft) from the time used for schedule padding.

Airlines operate in a tough environment.  Getting planes to their destinations within a reasonable time is one of the marvels of the modern age. There are many exogenous factors affecting every flight – from weather to labor shortages to tarmac congestion.  Airline managers have been able to use these exogenous factors as a blanket to hide operational inefficiencies.  While this may have been helpful to airline managers, it frustrates passengers and represents a loss of value to shareholders. And there is not an insignificant impact on the environment from running engines longer than necessary, dare we point out.

The DoT 15 Minute rule

In 1987 the US DoT implemented on-time reporting – arising out of frustration by the US Congress of airlines’ poor on-time performance. To make this more reliable the definition of “On Time” was defined as within 15 mins of scheduled departure or arrival time. GDS display algorithms penalized poor-performing flights.  Congress mandated the “name and shame” of poorly performing carriers.  

But airlines quickly realized they could keep their on-time performance on track if they just fudged schedules. Take a look at how CRS times compare with actual times between New York and Miami as an example.

In case you wonder what those “missing minutes” are worth, the following table gives you a guide.

Between 2016 and 1Q21 the average US domestic flight was 151 minutes duration, so a 15-minute “window” represents a 10% cover.  How would your industry like a 10% error factor to (legally) allow you to claim you’re on time with a deliverable?  Does this industry really need 10% error? Let’s see what the leading clearinghouse of airline schedule (OAG) and on-time performance (OTP) data has to say:

Probably most people in the industry would accept that an OTP of 80% or above is pretty good. That’s 4 in 5 flights arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. The very best airlines and airports succeed in punctuality closer to 90% – but they remain the exception rather than the rule.

Going much beyond 80% of flights on time will be easier for some than for others. Operating at congested airports and in congested airspace will make it harder. And as climate change begins to create more chaotic weather conditions, and storms, in particular, keeping to schedule will be harder.

Achieving OTP well above 80% requires focus but there may be a point where striving towards ever higher OTP may be detrimental to the bottom line. The benefit of incremental improvements may be outweighed by the cost of achieving them. 

The global airline trade group, IATA, provides a classification of over 80 delay codes. Thus the problem is not one of the data, but rather a manipulation of its meaning.

Combining Data

The US DoT has the most granular level of airline operational data in the world.  For analysts (including these authors) this is a rich source providing excellent insight into the operations of the airline industry.  It also acts as a global benchmark for airlines outside the US.

But factoring back in the padding (average of all major US airlines over six minutes per domestic flight) shows something different in the actual behavior. (For those of you interested in eye-popping math: For 2019, multiply $89/operational minute x 6 minutes x 4,415,800 flights for the dollar impact)

As can be seen, when factoring back in the specific padding, averaged for each airline domestic systemwide, the picture changes. And SURPRISE, some airlines appear to be missing the 15-minute target.  Airlines above the red dashed line are late.  So, the next time your US domestic pilot proudly proclaims he arrived early, smile a little smile and hum Fleetwood Mac’s “Little Lies”.

There are several questions that should be asked of the US airline industry:

  1. How should shareholders react knowing there is so much slack in schedules?
    1. Flight operations are clearly sub-optimal
    2. And the data suggest the problem is getting worse
  2. How much could the economy have benefitted from the US airline industry having less schedule padding?
    1. How much would the economy benefit from better schedule efficiencies?
    2. How much are travelers paying for this lost time? What is that time worth?
  3. The average real schedule delay tells us aircraft engines are running longer than they should be.
    1. What is the environmental cost of this?
    2. What can the airline industry do to improve or fix this?
author avatar
Addison Schonland
Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

2 thoughts on “The Real Costs of US Airline Schedule Padding

  1. This article misses several important factors. First, technology exists today to improve airline OPT, proven and validated by FAA and Georgia Tech among others. Airlines choose not to understand how this works but fall back on the lame excuse of “it can’t be done.” If that neanderthal response were true, the technology would not have been proven and validated.

    Second, this is not just about the efficiency of airline operations, it is about the environment. How much fuel could be saved, how many emissions avoided. Airlines are completely negligent in not adopting this technology. Again, negligence.

    Third, a better question for stakeholders and shareholders is why it is okay for airlines to WASTE SO MUCH MONEY in bad operations and failure. Again it is negligent for managers to embrace this technology. It is the airlines’ responsibility to explore all avenues to reduce costs and emissions.

    Airlines say they want to be sustainable yet don’t do everything they can to improve operations. Instead, they wait for the government to “fix it” when we all know that will never happen no matter how much we throw at ATC modernization. The problem is embedded in airlines themselves. Until they get serious about wresting control of their own operations, I will just laugh at their protestations they are doing anything to curb emissions. More efficient engines will not make up for inefficient airline operations with those engines.

    Kathryn Creedy

  2. Okay, slot-constraint airports keep complaining about airlines taking slots that the rotation planning cannot provide for, so aircraft coming in early/late, with rippling effects for all others.

    The longer the flight, the more wind and other effects have impact on the schedule. Then we talk about technical delays, ground ops delays, ATC (at large airports often caused by slot offsets or weather), you name it, incl. i.e. A-CDM-delays.

    All airlines keep maintaining – that means constant adjustments – airport delays to be taken into safe margins. As for the “passenger rights” excesses airlines also take care that the departure time is safe, whereas the passengers would prefer a punctual arrival…
    All airlines I know address this issue best to their abilities – but they rely on external factors beyond their control.

    So pointing fingers never helps anyone, nor the problem itself. I don’t know any airline that says it couldn’t be done, quite contrary they struggle to get it done. Then we have “smartass” IT “solution providers” that offer panacea for situation where a panacea simply is not possible.
    Or to quote Simon Calder from the Independent: “The fact that almost all the time planes depart and arrive pretty much on schedule is frankly miraculous.” (Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/ryanair-head-press-communications-job-b1891620.html)

    A few years back, I saw Harris map showing the accurate position of aircraft, they called “situational awareness”. Working on A-CDM, I told them, I’d like to see a forecast, where those aircraft would be in let’s say three hours. Including the A-CDM registered delays and rescheduling at departure, arrival and down-the-line airports. Such a tool is still utopia and you guys and gals really bother about schedule padding and dare to blame the airline?

    Last but not least, back in 2017, I wrote about that “on-time performance” fairy tale: https://foodforthought.barthel.eu/2017/01/on-time-performance-and-punctuality-league/
    Who is to be faulted for lousy on-time? The airline? The airport? The ground-handling company? The weather (oh my gawd, it’s snowing. Again! So unexpected. Again)? The ANSP (U.S. the FAA)? The passenger (late i.e. due traffic jam)? And question since 2015 publicly the idiocy to do it on departure statistics, being good for ATC but bad for passenger approaching a hub airport with 90 minutes pre-arrival circling.

    Food for Thought, comments welcome…
    Cheers – Juergen

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