Flight delays are worse than officials say

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Yesterday,The New York Times had a great story titled "Ugly Airline Math." (It was also their most e-mailed story of the day.) Here's the money quote:

The on-time performance of airlines has reached an all-time low, but even the official numbers do not begin to capture the severity of the problem. That is because these statistics track how late airplanes are, not how late passengers are. The longest delays--those resulting from missed connections and canceled flights--involve sitting around for hours or even days in airports and hotels and do not officially get counted.

In fact, one MIT study found that the actual delay time is two-thirds longer than the official statistics.

Back in mid-May, The Wall Street Journal reported a great story, "Why Those Government Stats on Airlines Are Misleading". The paper pointed out two facts:

1. "As many as half of the flights of major airlines aren't counted in their results, including many flights with horrendous service records," says reporter Scott McCartney. Whenever a major airline such as Delta puts you on a flight operated by one of its small, regional carriers, such as Comair and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, any delays you experience aren't included in Delta's official count of flight delays. And--surprise, suprise--the flight delays on these smaller regional carriers (for Delta and for other major airlines) are much worse than the industry average.

2. In a follow-up story, "Why Flights Are Getting Longer," the WSJ reported that flight delays are even worse than official stats reflect. Airlines are padding their published flight schedules to add in extra time on their routes and reduce the chances that their flight is officially delayed. In other words,...

A check of two dozen flights from June airline schedules found that "block times" --the time airlines allot in their schedules for the trip -- are about 10% higher than they were in June 1997....Many delays are now simply being incorporated into schedules, at high cost to consumers and airlines. Congestion at airports and in the sky have forced airlines to pad their schedules more than ever so flights have a better chance of arriving "on-time," which the Department of Transportation defines as within 15 minutes of the airline's scheduled arrival time. Flights now arrive technically "on-time," but with 30 minutes or more of delay written into the flight plan.

There's yet another problem. When airlines screw up or foul weather strikes--causing a delay to an inbound flight, some airline employees refuse to hold flights for onward connections for fear of incurring an official delay on the second, outbound flight. In other words, as Jim O'Donnell posted to a New York Times blog: "I have lost count of the number of times I've been on a modestly delayed inbound flight to Dulles on United, only to lose the ongoing connection by literally 1-2 minutes--because the gate crew were eager to show *that* flight was on time...There's an information and management gap here for airlines that could be overcome quite easily."

So: What can airlines do to cut down on the number of delayed flights?

Companies such as Raytheon have a solution: The nation needs to update its air traffic control system by buying new equipment. Outdated machinery for air-traffic controllers causes planes to zigzag, or hop-scotch, the country instead of flying shorter, more-direct paths.

Feel free to share any thoughts you may have about flight delays by posting comments below. (See other reader thoughts on handling flight delays here.)

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