How Airline Padding Is Driving Up Your Travel Times

Flight times could be getting longer due to “schedule creep” or “padding” where airlines allow themselves extra time on a route to prevent official delays. According to BBC reporting, Captain Michael Baiada, president of aviation consultancy ATH Group says:

By padding, airlines are gaming the system to fool you.

Baiada, refers to figures from the US Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report. He says 30% of all flights still arrive over 15 minutes late “despite padding” but that padding has reduced this figure from a previous 40%.

Delays are a normality in air travel.
Delays are a normality in air travel. Image Source: Pixabay

What is padding?

With delays a normal rather than an unusual event, airlines may have added time to routes to compensate for common delays. This means you take off late and still arrive on time at your destination.

Padding can increase fuel costs, noise, and CO2. Baiada says airlines should tackle more operational issues which would mean:

If airline efficiency goes up, costs go down, benefitting both the environment and fares.

Investing to improve delays

Airlines for America says global airlines are investing billions to improve flight paths, but that the 30% figure of all flights delayed is not improving. The US Department of Transportation points to one airline, Delta Air Lines, trying to make sure its flights are on time. Delta has invested $2 billion in new planes, cabins and airport facilities. The airline says “on-time performance” can drive higher airfares.

The BBC describes the window of between 0 and 14 minutes where a flight can be late. It’s not until 15 minutes after a plane is due at a gate that it’s classed as late by the US Department of Transportation. This window before the 15-minute mark can lead to congestion. Air traffic control has to make allowances in case too many planes arrive at the same time. They can then slow approaches meaning a slower arrival at gate for some planes.

Could airlines do more?

Baiada, of ATH Group, believes that 80% of factors causing lateness including scheduling, arrival flows, aircraft and gate availability, and maintenance and crew factors, are within an airlines’ control to improve.

Tom Hendricks, a retired airline executive, told the BBC that schedules aim for perfect conditions. Though most days they could do more to become efficient, he says:

On any given day you might have weather, air traffic control or company network disruptions and the system must adjust.

A 2016 Bloomberg report says investment has halved air traffic control-caused delays since 2007 but that airline-attributed delays have risen.

Baiada has developed a flow management system which, in tests, reduced delays, fuel burn, noise, CO2, and air traffic control congestion. Delta Air Lines saved $74 million in fuel in the tests.

Hendricks was at Delta during the testing. He says airlines are reluctant to invest in new technology due to past mixed results.

Delta 767-400ER
Delta could save $74m in fuel costs Photo: Delta Airlines

Expert and airline views vary on the cause of delays and how to combat them. Many say airlines can do more. However much investment is flowing into improvements both by airlines and into air traffic control. Progress may have been made. But the skies are getting busier every day and the number of airlines, airports, and other stakeholders is also increasing. A continued and all-party collaborative approach seems sensible.

Padding might well happen, but with many factors, including passenger behavior, delaying flights daily the 30% of all flights delayed could be a tough statistic to improve.