Airplane taking off
Credit: Holgi via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Airline service has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Years ago airline passengers received a higher grade of service with a purchased ticket as opposed to what is provided with today's amenities. However, economic realities set in and many companies had to scale back to remain cost-efficient; other changes in planning and services have emerged as well. From a business standpoint, many of the reasons associated with cutbacks make sense.  Many airlines have gone under or merged to stay afloat. For those that managed to stay in business, it makes sense changes have to be made.

One interesting trend that has emerged in the airline industry is the padding of flight times. Essentially, what this means is flights that used to take, say three hours, now take as much as four or five hours to reach the same destination.

Why would this be?

Are Airlines Really Padding On Extra Time to Flights?

The first question to consider is, are airlines really padding on extra time to flights? A study conducted in 2015, evidence seems to suggest they are doing it, reported the Los Angeles Times in November 2015. According to OAG Aviation Worldwide, a Britain-based company that collects and analyzes travel data, the practice has gone on for about two decades. OAG looked at a number of routes around the world and found airlines have been steadily adding on minutes to the same flights. They then tracked changes for each route from year to year. 1

For instance, as one example, OAG listed a flight been Los Angeles International Airport and San Francisco International Airport. This flight, one that took 90 minutes in 1996, was listed in subsequent years as being 91 to 110 minutes. The Telegraph reported on the same study and used a London Heathrow to Edinburgh flight as an example. In 1996 this route was allotted 75 minutes or less, but fast-forward to 2015 and airlines were listing this route as being 85 minutes. 2

These two flights alone seem to suggest airlines are indeed tacking on extra minutes to the time given to get from point A to point B. So going with the idea that airlines are actually padding out flight times, there are a few different theories of why airlines are doing it. (Realistically, it’s probably a combination of factors).

5 Reasons Why Airlines Pad Extra Time to Scheduled Flights

1. Ability to Boast Better Performances

When reports of the OAG study were published, there was buzz in the media that airlines were doing it so executives could boast better performance times. The Associated Press reported in September 2015 the U.S. Department of Transportation listed 78.1 of flights on U.S.-leading airlines arrived on time in July. This was up from 74.8 in June and 75.6 percent in July 2014. (courtesy Fox News 3)

The Telegraph report referred back to a 2013 report where an AirTran Airways pilot told Reader’s Digest, “airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals, so they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes”. 4

2. Improve Operational Flow

With additional minutes (or hours!) added to flights, this helps make sure operations flow more smoothly. It also impacts the industry's reputation, which is another important factor to airlines. The Wall Street Journal reported in February 2010:

“For some airlines, longer scheduled times for flights reflects the reality of inefficiency in the nation's air travel system, which often can't handle the volume of planes without delay, especially when bad weather hits.” 5

The public's perception is important to airlines and, in a time where social media, blogging and in an age where Internet-based communications are so prominent, any company is going to want to avoid negative comments that could be widespread.

Airport Internet cafe
Credit: Johnnie Shannon via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

3. Create a Positive Perception

Flights that are habitually late, regardless of the reason, reflect badly on the airline. Customers are likely to be more satisfied with their flights if they arrive earlier than expected rather than later. From a marketing and branding perspective, airlines likely want to give off a positive appearance and not absorb the negative impression associated with delays and late arrivals; even if a postponement is beyond their control. It's all about perception.

Additionally, being that unanticipated events such as bad weather, air traffic control delays, airport congestion and other factors may impact a flight, padding flight times provides the airline with a bit of wiggle room; this way both airlines and passengers can better plan their time expectations.

4. Budget in the Weather Factors

Weather is predictable to an extent, but can be hard to plan around rainy, windy or snowy conditions when it comes to travel. Adding in a bit of buffer time for flight arrivals can compensate for any potential delays, no matter how slight, that can arise due to bad weather that is beyond anyone's control.

Snowy airport
Credit: Leigh Goessl

5. Cope With Airport and Air Traffic Control Delays

Adding in a bit of extra time can give the airline some flexibility to deal with high volume of traffic. As costs increase, many airlines have cut back on the number of flights in an attempt to fly less planes, scale back on staff hours, fuel and other operational costs. It also increases chances a flight reaches a full number of passengers for any given flight. This could translate into longer lines at the gates, both departures and arrivals.

Directing air traffic
Credit: Leigh Goessl

Interestingly, while flights have been consolidated, there are still many more planes in the air than there were a couple of decades ago. Brett Snyder writes in a September 2011 CNN report: 

“Let's start with air traffic congestion. There are a lot more airplanes flying today than 30 years ago, and the situation is at its worst in New York, where delays are quite common. In these congested airports, the federal government determines how many flights can be operated and the airlines work within those parameters”. 6

As a result, this scenario could realistically cause many delays, especially in cities that have busier airports.

Padding flight times can be an annoyance, but on the bright side it can also be a plus to the traveler. Looking at it from that perspective, it allows people to proactively plan for designated blocks of time to be traveling, this ensures they aren't as late on the other end in the event a real delay does occur.