Monday, January 30, 2006

On-time flights: perception, or reality?

In the last year and a half, I've flown on Air France, Air India, Alitalia, Aloha, American, British, China Airlines, Hawaiian, KLM, Northwest, Ted, and United. (Nice selection, eh?) Most of them tended to be more or less on-time (give or take a few minutes) most of the time. On my most recent trip, though, I had one Air France flight, one KLM flight, and four Northwest flights... and every single one departed on-time and got in early. One flight stopped to drop off passengers, then made a 30-minute hop to its final destination, and even on that 30-minute hop, it was 8 minutes early.

This impressed me greatly, but it also made me wonder what was going on. These airlines fly the same equipment (Boeing or Airbus) as everyone else. The routes I flew are unfortunately ones that no one else flies exactly, so it's impossible to compare their scheduled flight times to others. 

They do operate out of airports that are slightly less busy, which could reduce ground delays. For example, in 2004, Amsterdam-Schipol (KLM/Northwest) saw 42 million passengers - much less than the 51 million at Frankfurt-Main (Lufthansa/United) or the 67 million at London-Heathrow (British/American). Seattle (Northwest) saw 28 million, compared to 33 million at San Francisco (United), 42 million at Denver (United) or 60 million at Los Angeles (American).

But there's also the possibility that they're just being clever and padding their schedules a bit. If they know a route takes an hour, saying it takes an hour and ten minutes lets them get in ten minutes "ahead of schedule" on average, right? I'm not sure whether this actually happens at all though. I looked at one route a lot of airlines fly - Honolulu to Los Angeles - and Northwest's flight duration of 5:03 was actually the shortest listed, with others ranging up to 5:20. Weird...

So I'm really not sure what's up, or why all these flights get in early, while, say, United's get in late more often than not. Anybody know?

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