by Hugh Morris and Oliver Smith, The Telegraph, March 1, 2018
Passenger jets have never been more advanced. With Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, introduced in 2011, leading the charge, and new models like the 737 MAX and the Airbus A320neo following in its wake, the aircraft on which we travel are safer, smoother, quieter and more fuel efficient than ever.
They also appear perfectly capable of flying faster than their predecessors. Just last month the low-cost carrier Norwegian issued a celebratory press release after one of its 787 Dreamliners whizzed from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to London Gatwick in five hours and 13 minutes, setting a new transatlantic record for a subsonic plane. That’s three minutes quicker than the previous best time set by British Airways in January 2015.
So why, record-breaking feats notwithstanding, are airlines claiming it takes longer and longer to fly from A to B?
That’s according to research by OAG, the aviation analyst, carried out for Telegraph Travel. It found that over the last couple of decades, despite new technology, scheduled flight times - ie. how long an airline estimates it will take to complete a journey - have actually increased by as much as 50 per cent.
Looking at Europe’s busiest international route, for example - Heathrow to Dublin - it found that in 1996 the vast majority of airlines published a scheduled flight time of between 60 and 74 minutes. Fast forward 22 years and almost all claim the journey takes between 75 and 89 minutes, while a handful bank on 90 minutes or more.
So why are airlines exaggerating flight times?
While it’s denied by airlines, industry insiders call the practice “schedule padding” and insist it’s all about improving punctuality.
Take that aforementioned journey from JFK to Gatwick, which Norwegian completed on Monday January 15 in just five hours 13 minutes. Yes it was helped by a particularly fierce jet stream, but Norwegian actually assigned a full six and a half hours for the 3,458-mile journey. That’s a difference of 77 minutes between scheduled flight time and reality.
“The flight carrying 284 passengers departed New York at 1144am and arrived at London at 957pm – 53 minutes early,” boasted the press release. That’s almost an hour early, despite leaving JFK 24 minutes late (Norwegian’s Monday morning service is supposed to depart at 1120am). A perfect example of how overestimating the flight time can turn a tardy service into an on-time one.
All frequent travellers will be familiar with the scenario. You spend 30 minutes waiting on the runway, but still - miraculously - manage to reach your destination ahead of schedule. Another boost for the airline’s punctuality stats. Cue Ryanair’s on-time jingle.
As a pilot for the (now defunct) AirTran Airways told Reader’s Digest in 2013: “Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals, so they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.”
Just how much have flight times increased?
This week OAG looked at four more routes for Telegraph Travel.
For the hop from Heathrow to JFK, a few airlines back in 1996 allowed less than 7 hours 30 mins for the journey, but most scheduled between 7 hours 30 mins and 8 hours 15 mins. Now, some opt for 8 hours 30 mins or more.
For Gatwick-Palma, the majority of carriers gave a flight time of between 2 hours and 2 hours 15 mins back in 1996. Now around a third schedule more than 2 hours 30 mins for the trip.
Average flight times were found to be more consistent on flights from Manchester to Orlando and from Edinburgh to Amsterdam, but previous research by OAG has shown the scheduled journey time growing on other key routes:
London to Edinburgh, from 1 hour 15 mins, on average, in 1996 to 1 hour 25 mins in 2015.
Madrid to Barcelona, from around 1 hour to 1 hour 20 mins.
New York La Guardia to Chicago from around 2 hours 30 mins to 2 hours 50 mins.
Tokyo to Fukuoka from 1 hour 45 mins to 2 hours.
Is it just about punctuality?
Perhaps not. John Grant, a senior analyst at OAG, believes it’s a little more complex than that. Flight routes and airports are getting busier, and new runways (like Amsterdam’s Polderbaan, opened in 2003) are often a long way from their terminal, he explains, factors carriers have to consider when publishing their schedules.
“There is a perception that airlines are increasingly padding their schedules, but they are also having to include allowances for longer taxiing times at those airports that have become more congested,” he said. Which could go some way to explaining why, in the examples above, flight times from mega hubs like Heathrow and Gatwick have grown while those from the regional airports of Edinburgh and Manchester have remained steady.
How is punctuality measured?
Schedule padding wouldn’t be of any use to airlines if on-time performance (OTP) was calculated according to departure. Instead, it’s all about arriving on time. Or at least not too late.
If you arrange to meet your friend at 3pm and they arrive at 10 past, you would say they are late. If your plane is scheduled to arrive at its destination at 3pm and it arrives at 10 past, it is on time. This is according to the industry standard method of measuring punctuality. Flightstats.com, an aviation monitoring website that runs an annual OTP awards, accept 15 minutes within scheduled arrival as on-time. A spokesperson for EasyJet told Telegraph Travel that the arrival time is taken from when the parking brake is applied – that is when you arrive at your gate. Incidentally, the departure time is taken from when the aircraft begins to move faster than three knots (roughly 3.5mph). The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also publishes information on how good airlines are at time-keeping, using 15 minutes as its late benchmark.
Media outlets, such as Telegraph Travel, are likely to run stories on how punctual airlines are, so it’s increasingly a key performance indicator and a way of marketing an airline’s strength to the public.
What do airlines say?
They deny increasing flight times to improve punctuality. “We regularly review our flight plans and timings to ensure that we can meet our published departure and arrival times and customers can plan their journeys accordingly,” said BA. “The weather, type of aircraft, air traffic control restrictions, airport infrastructure and geopolitical considerations will all play a part in the decisions we take about whether to increase or decrease each route’s published flight time in our schedule.”
Ryanair, which has one of the highest OTPs in the industry, said: “At the end of each season all scheduled flight times are adjusted up or down to reflect the average flight times recorded on each route over that season. We do not and have never adjusted flight times to improve on-time performance, as this would reduce the efficiency of our operations.”
Does it even matter?
Yes and no. Yes it is frustrating to see airlines tout sky-high punctuality stats while taking longer and longer to complete the same journey.
But it also comes down to managing expectations. If you arrive 10 minutes early on a flight that was scheduled to take 10 minutes less a decade ago you’re still going to be happy. However, arrive 10 minutes late and you’ll be miffed. In that sense airlines are shifting the schedules to protect your experience (as well as their reputation).
We asked John Grant what makes one airline better at being on-time than another.
“Very little, to be honest,” he said. “Airlines that operate at very large airports with lots of departures a day [think BA and Virgin] obviously have more challenges to face with the sheer volumes of movements, longer waiting times to taxi, waiting for a gate to become available for the plane to offload passengers, etc. But airlines that operate to such airports allow for that in their planning and daily operation, working hard with airports and suppliers to make sure the whole operation runs as smoothly as possible for all airlines.” So there’s really no excuse for being late.
This article was written by Hugh Morris and Oliver Smith from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].