What’s the easiest way to ensure that a flight lands on time? The answer is an old trick that more airlines are turning to scrub flight delays.
It’s called schedule padding. Arriving on time is easy when you block four hours for a flight that only takes three. It allows for on-time arrivals even with departure delays, ground delays, and arrival delays. Furthermore, it prevents a ripple effect of delays by allowing a delayed flight to realistically make up time and thereby not delay the aircraft’s next segment.
Last month I was on a United flight from Los Angeles to Seattle, blocked at 2hr, 50min. We made it up to Seattle in about two, circled the airport for 45 minutes due to bad weather, and still landed on time.
Now you could look at that as a validation of schedule padding, but look the flip side as well. When there are not unforeseen delays a plane arrives early. Gates may not be open, leading to extreme annoyance when passengers sit waiting for a gate for 20-30 minutes only to be told they are still on-time. Even when a gate is open immediately, connecting passengers encounter a longer waits and aircraft are not fully utilized. It starts to add up.
But now there’s a new reason for schedule padding: to avoid compensation. The Guardian reports on a growing trend in Europe by airlines to “travel slower.” Airlines have all sorts of excuses to explain why. Ryanair says it flies slower to burn less fuel, thus helping the environment and allowing the budget carrier to offer cheaper fees. British Airways blames increased traffic congestion in the European skies for its schedule padding.
Perhaps both are valid reasons. But most consumers see right through these. Average flight times are up on 87% of British Airways flights, 82% for Ryanair, 75% for Virgin Atlantic, and 62% for easyJet. Even that disparity suggests there is something rotten in Denmark…
This is hardly a new issue. I wrote about it more than eight years ago. Schedule padding will always be part of commercial air travel. But using schedule padding as deliberate trick to avoid delayed flight compensation is a new trick. Interestingly, it may not even be working: flight delays were way up this summer across Europe. Perhaps we have even more padding to look forward to in the months ahead.