Nearly all airlines are coming under commercial pressure to improve their on-time performance. In response to this, the use of ‘schedule padding’ has become an open secret among airlines, when airlines exaggerate the allotted time it takes to fly from one destination to another to minimise increasingly common delays. It is also why passengers are surprised that, despite their late take-off, they still manage to arrive at their destination early.
What’s happening isn’t that the pilot has gone into overdrive like a mad Neapolitan taxi driver, breaking all the Italian road regulations. No, what’s actually happening is the airlines are, in fact, manufacturing more time to cover for factors that can cause late departures. According to Flightright, who specialise in protecting air passengers’ rights and help them seek compensation, airlines like Flybe are pushing estimated flight times as far as they can go to allow them more movement when delays happen. These delays can happen for a number of reasons, including scheduling conflicts, gate availability, aircraft maintenance, crew eligibility, security checks and the concertina effect of previously delayed incoming flights.
Flightright are a company that takes delayed flights very seriously. They have a database that checks for strikes, weather and flight data across Europe to see whether a passenger is entitled to compensation for delayed flights. This is certainly useful because this problem isn’t getting any better for customers as airlines squeeze in more flights to increasing numbers of destinations.
According to transportation.gov, flights from the UK are, on average, 30 minutes late in arriving. That figure is actually down from 40%, which indicates that schedule padding is working for the airlines.
Some airlines, like Delta, have invested billions in improving their aircraft, cabins and airport facilities to mitigate delay causes. While they have one of the best records in on-time performance, their fares have, correspondingly, risen.
A report undertaken by the travel research group OAG and the Telegraph showed that, for the Heathrow to Dublin route, flight times in the mid-1990s were quoted at between 60-74 minutes. After 20 years of flying that route – and even with updated aircraft and more efficient technology – times are now quoted at between 75-90 minutes.
The reason for this increased flight time is not just because of the congested airspace and flights queuing up to land. It’s to alleviate some of the pressure airlines face in coughing up for delayed flight compensation, and it gives them much more room to play with.
Much has to do with two factors that help airlines sell more tickets. Firstly, performance, as flight padding creates a false image of being on time more often, and secondly, because punctuality is expected by customers. It is that feeling passengers have when their flight, which didn’t take off until fifteen minutes after its scheduled time, still manages to arrive on time (or even earlier than scheduled), which is vital in maintaining customer trust.
Schedule padding is how the airlines can say ‘look at our stats, our service is improving’. But it is borrowed time. In recent years, the number of passengers claiming compensation for delayed flights has increased in line with the EU Flight Compensation Regulation introduced in 2005. Having flexible, extended flight times is one method airlines have tried to mitigate their delays, but it doesn’t address the real causes.