The aviation industry is constantly evolving, with faster, safer, smoother and more efficient aircraft. In recent years, you only have to look at the new aircraft models on the market to see the progress being made: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A350 (both of which are designed to revolutionise long-haul ravel) and the newest players in the short-haul scene – the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo. So why, in an age when air travel is more advanced than ever before, are airlines claiming that it takes longer to get from A to B than a decade ago? There is one simply answer. An industry-wide practice, known as ‘schedule padding’.
What is schedule padding?
An investigation by Which? has revealed that flight times this summer are up to 35 minutes longer than they were in 2008.
It’s clear that planes aren’t physically flying slower. In fact, in January of this year, Norwegian set a record for the fastest subsonic transatlantic flight recorded on a commercial aircraft – taking 5hrs13mins to fly from New York-JFK to London Gatwick. The journey was blocked at 6hrs30mins – a difference of 77 minutes between actual flight time and scheduled flight time. This meant that, although the flight left the States 24 minutes behind schedule, it still arrived 53 minutes ahead its allotted arrival time.
This is the art of schedule padding: Norwegian was able to turn an initially delayed flight into a record-breaking one.
A different example is Aer Lingus’ flights from London Heathrow to Dublin. EI151, operating daily between London and Dublin, is blocked at a flight time of 80 minutes:However, the actual average flight time for this journey is 51 minutes, just under 2/3 of the scheduled time set by the airline.
Therefore, under normal circumstances, this allows Aer Lingus to leave London up to 29 minutes late, yet still claim to be on-time upon arrival in Dublin.
Who are the perpetrators and why do they do it?
According to flight timetables, approximately 76 out of 125 flights take longer now than they did a decade ago. According to the Which? study, EasyJet, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair are all guilty. The report found that British Airways’ flights from London to New York-JFK, Singapore and Bangkok all took 20 minutes longer this year, than in 2008.
It will take you longer to get to Berlin this year, too: London to Berlin Schönefeld flights operated by both Ryanair and EasyJet took 10 and 19 minutes longer, respectively. And no, this can’t be blamed on Brexit. It is because airlines are becoming more savvy with their punctuality. Increasing the scheduled time for a flight gives them more margin for error and makes a delay less likely to cause a damaging knock-on effect throughout the day. Additionally, it allows them to bolster their punctuality ratings.
Last year, Hong Kong Airlines flew to the top of the punctuality league tables, with a whopping 94.8% of all flights being reported as arriving ‘on-time’. To begin with, the airline was praised until it emerged that they had simply extended flight times. To his credit, the airline’s vice chairman, Tang King-shing, was honest. He admitted, ‘We saw on-time performance was a problem, so we allowed extra time.’
Another potential reason is to avoid paying out compensation. Under EU regulation 261/2004, if you are delayed by more than two hours an airline has to provide you with:
- two free phone calls, faxes or emails
- free meals and refreshments appropriate to the delay
- free hotel accommodation and hotel transfers if an overnight stay is required.
Compensation is even more costly if the delay in question is longer. If an airline allows itself more time to reach its destination, they are less likely to be delayed. Hence, they are less likely to have to compensate customers in any way.
Finally, one potential explanation could be that airlines are flying planes slower than they can actually fly. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair all suggested that this is something they do.
The concept behind this is that airlines reduce fuel consumption, translating into less fuel use, cheaper operating costs and – for the consumer – cheaper tickets. This could be one potential upside of schedule padding for the average passenger.
Are there any excuses for schedule padding?
British Airways has said that routings to and from the Far East have had to be adjusted for security reasons, including the tragedy of MH17 which was shot down over Ukraine.
European airspace is also busier now than it was in 2008. Flight taxi times at congested airports, such as London-Heathrow have increased dramatically and airlines are clearly compensating for this.
It has also been argued that padding airline flight times gives customers more reliable indicators on which to plan meetings, onward transport or flight connections as a small delay wouldn’t necessarily cause disruption.
Schedule padding isn’t always a negative thing and, due to the reasons mentioned above, it isn’t always an airline’s fault. However, there are clearly ulterior motives for schedule padding and airline companies should be transparent with their customers about how long they’ll spend in the air.