It’s Hard To Believe Delta Brings 86% Of Its Flights In On Time.
Sometimes in life one encounters information that’s just hard to believe. Such, is the case with new rankings of the top-performing international airlines from FlightGlobal based on on-time performance. That’s a well-respected aviation news and information website and operator of the widely used Flighttracker.com site that tracks commercial flights’ progress around the world.
Late last week FlightGlobal reported that Delta Airlines has the best on-time performance among the world’s major international airlines. More jaw dropping was the number that FlightGlobal placed on Delta’s on-time performance: 86.09%. Beyond that, the other two members of the U.S.’s Big Three international carriers, United and American, placed in the global Top 10, with United (8th) reported to have an 80.75% on-time arrival rate and American (9th) , 80.28%.
However, those numbers aren’t nearly as “real” as the casual reader might believe upon first reading.
For starters, FlightGlobal ranked carriers’ on-time performance using the standard definition used by the U.S. Department of Transportation for “on-time” operations. Accordingly, if a flight arrives 15 minutes or more after its published arrival time it officially is late. But if it arrives just 14 minutes and 59 seconds behind its published arrival time it is, at least officially, “on-time” even though every soul onboard that flight is by that time chafing over being — by the standard, commonly-understood human definition of “late” — late.
Alter that evaluation to allow airlines only 10 minutes of grace in determining whether a flight is late or not, and Delta’s 86% performance likely would be below 80%. Cut that dispensation of grace to just five minutes, and it likely would fall to or below the 75% mark. Those are rates of product/service defects consumers are known to accept happily in almost no other sector of economic life.
But consumers willingly put up with airlines that can get them to their destinations on time – really on time, not on time with lots of qualifications – only two-thirds to three-quarters of the time. Even though airlines legitimately can’t, and shouldn’t be blamed for weather-caused delays, weather reasonably can be blamed for only about 8% of flight delays, tops.
But at least the DOT’s so-called “A-15” (arrival within 15 minutes of published time) is a widely accepted and understood, albeit loose standard. There is, however, a less widely understood and much more deceptive variable in the calculation of whether or not a particular flight is really on-time, or an airline’s entire schedule of thousands of flights a day. You see, these days even if a flight arrives officially on time – even A-0, the short hand term for a flight that arrives exactly when it’s supposed to according to the published schedule – it still is very likely to be “late” from a purely operational perspective. That’s because airlines over the years have added often large chunks of time to their published flight schedules.
They pad their flight schedules in small part to account for increased air traffic and air traffic congestion at some (but not most) airports. But more and more time has been added to airlines’ published flight schedules in recent years in a cynical effort to disguise how inefficient airlines’ flight operations have become (or, in a quietly defeatist admission of how ineffective their existing flight operation management controls really are).
Lonnie Bowlin, president of Aerospace Engineering & Research Associates, Inc., is a globally-recognized expert on air traffic control and flight management systems used by the Federal Aviation Administration, plus by air traffic control organizations and airlines from around the world. He currently is building a massive analytical database of global flight schedule performance that, among other things, shows what a huge problem such flight schedule padding is becoming. Though the project isn’t completed, just one, isolated, anecdotal example is enough to illustrate the enormous scale of the problem – and the deceptive picture of on-time performance that schedule padding helps create.
Bowlin analyzed Delta’s on-time arrival performance at its Detroit hub on one day – Dec. 1 – in both 2017 and 2018. First he added up all the “block” time of Delta flights scheduled to arrive that day at Detroit and then he added up all the actual block times of those same flights into Detroit that day. “Block” time is airline jargon for the time between the moment the wheel blocks are removed from a plane at its departure gate to the time blocks are placed back on its wheels again at its arrival gate. These days “block” time actually is calculated from the time a pilot releases the parking brake at a departure gate to the time the brake is re-set at the arrival gate. Effectively scheduled block time serves as a flight’s “scheduled” flight time.
In comparing these scheduled block times with those same flights’ actual block or flight times, he discovered that on Dec. 1, 2017, Delta’s Detroit flights had 5,335 more minutes of scheduled block time than was necessary to complete all those flights. In other words, it had 5,335 minutes of “padding” in its Detroit schedule. One year later, however, with only very modest changes to the number of flights Delta operated at Detroit and the cities from which those flights began, the carrier had a whopping 16,146 minutes of unnecessary time or padding built into its Detroit arrival schedule. Weather differences and those slight tactical service schedule changes don’t come close to explaining that three-fold increase in schedule padding over just one year’s time.
The 10,811 minute – or 180 service hours – difference in Delta’s Detroit arrival schedule at Detroit over just one year equates to 16.4 additional jets needed to operate its Detroit schedule in 2018 vs. 2017, assuming each plane flies on average 11 hours a day. Several thousand more employees – not just pilots and flight attendants whose flight hours are strictly limited by the FAA but also gate agents, ramp workers, mechanics, airport janitors, managers and headquarters personnel – also would be required. But none of that extra expense would generate much, if any additional revenue because those 10,811 minutes of padding added to the Delta arrival schedule in just one year’s time were “dead” minutes. They did not create any additional paid passenger miles flown. And even if you cut in half all those projected number from the time savings available (based on the assumption that airlines are likely to be able to recover only half of the dead minutes caused by schedule padding) the incredible value of the half of that time that can be recovered remains obvious.
And Detroit is just one hub out of Delta’s huge network that also includes the world’s largest hub at Atlanta, and hubs in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and New York.
Though much work remains to be done, Bowlin says similar examples of schedule padding can be found involving pretty much all U.S. carriers at all their hubs and elsewhere.
Thus, airlines appear to be improving their much-criticized on-time performance, but they are doing it at a very high cost in terms of increased inefficiency, higher operating and aircraft ownership costs, and reduced profits. Indeed, while passengers may or may not be aware that they’re being deceived by airlines’ efforts to appear as though they’re improving their on-time performance, investors should not be so deceived. That’s because carriers are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars on the table that otherwise would flow through to their bottom lines. Alternatively, that money spent as a result of carriers’ schedule padding and other tricks that mask their continuing operational inefficiency could be spent on more planes and flights that would attract even more customers and revenue, or just saved, invested, or returned to shareholders via buybacks or dividends.
Travelers, too, could benefit from real improved operational efficiency. Not only would they be far more likely to arrive on time – and do so without schedule padding and lenient definitions of “on-time” – some of the carrier’s operational cost savings could, perhaps even likely would be converted into increased flying that, in turn, likely would trigger more seat discounting to help fill lots of new seats being added to the schedule (without reducing the airlines’ profits).
So congrats Delta – and United and American, too – for your strong performances in on-time arrival in 2018, according to FlightGlobal. Now let’s see you do it without the smoke and mirrors of schedule manipulation and a very forgiving definition of what should be a very straightforward and easy-to-understand phrase – on time.