For Jeffrey Winiarz, the only thing worse than a late arrival is an early one. Like the recent flight from Kansas City to Chicago’s frenetic O’Hare International Airport, which touched down a full half hour before its scheduled arrival time.
As his plane taxied toward the terminal, the captain welcomed passengers to the Windy City with “good news … and bad news.” They were early, but there was no available gate. The plane rolled to a stop in a part of the airport called the penalty box, while flight attendants tried to convince impatient passengers that they’d be pulling up to the gate any minute.
“No one was buying it,” remembers Winiarz, a technology consultant based in Atlanta. “They had plenty of open gates at the airport, and weather wasn’t a factor. They should have been operating normally.”
As the airline industry toasts its latest on-time arrival record — 79.1 percent of flights in April arrived on schedule, up just a fraction from the previous month and about one percentage point higher than a year ago — no one seems to be paying much attention to the price we pay for this improvement.
It’s true that one reason for the uptick in on-time arrivals is that there are fewer flights and therefore less air traffic to get stuck in. But airlines have also given themselves more time, which is often referred to as “padding” their schedules. They’ve added anywhere between five minutes to more than half an hour to some of their domestic flights since deregulation, in order to keep up their on-time ratings.
Back in 1979, for example, the average scheduled flight time from New York to Los Angeles was 339 minutes, according to OAG. This year, it takes an additional 41 minutes to travel the same distance, an increase of nearly 11 percent. The scheduled flying time from Chicago to Houston is up almost 18 percent in the same time period, while the average flight from Miami to Boston takes 26 extra minutes than it did three decades ago, an increase of almost 14 percent.
But there’s an obvious downside to these scheduling shenanigans: When flights arrive too early, they can spend a considerable amount of time in the penalty box. It took Winiarz’s flight nearly an hour before a gate opened up. “We spent more time on the ground in Chicago than in the air,” he says.
Average “taxi-in” times have fluctuated between a low of about 5 1/2 minutes in 1995 to a high of nearly 8 minutes in 2004. For the first four months of 2009, the average plane took just under 7 minutes from wheels-down to the gate, according to the Transportation Department.
But some planes spend far longer on the tarmac. For example, American Eagle flight 4325 from Charlotte to Chicago, waited 2 1/2 hours for a gate on April 5. Two other American Eagle flights idled for more than two hours on the tarmac in Chicago. American had three of the five most-delayed flights in April on a taxi-in basis, according to the government, while Continental Airlines had two.