The Most Extreme Airline Schedule Padding I’ve Ever Seen

Filed Under: Misc.

It’s normal for airlines to pad their schedules significantly, and it’s a trend that’s becoming more and more common. One metric on which airlines are judged is their on-time record. The problem is that a flight being on-time often has little to do with it being operated efficiently. One way that many airlines have improved their on-time records is by simply padding their schedules.

I find this trend to be annoying, since you end up arriving at your destination “early,” and as a result there’s often no gate ready. This situation is entirely avoidable, and leads to a lot of time being wasted.

Last November, Danny Lee of the South China Morning Post wrote about how Hong Kong Airlines became the world’s most punctual airline. The airline operated about 95% of flights on-time in the previous month, which is a significant improvement compared to previous years, where their on-time record wasn’t nearly as good. As a vice-chairman of the airline was quoted as saying “we saw on-time performance (OTP) was a problem, so we allowed extra time.”

Anyway, it’s pretty normal to see airline schedules vary. For example, looking at flights between New York and Los Angeles, I see that block time for nonstop flights varies from 5hr55min to 6hr55min, based on the airline and time of day. I can sort of rationalize that.

However, while randomly looking at flights I noticed what might be the single most extreme block time variance I’ve seen on a given route. A flight from Beijing to Bangkok covers a distance of ~2,050 miles. I’d assume a flight like that would take a hair over four hours in the air.

Now, Beijing is notorious for horrible air traffic control delays, so I totally understand why these flights would often be delayed. So, how extreme are airline schedules in this market? Pulling up the schedule for tomorrow, I see Ural Airways has a nonstop flight blocked at 4hr10min, while China Eastern has a nonstop flight blocked at 6hr5min. That’s a difference of 1hr55min on a flight of ~2,050 miles, which is crazy.

In fairness I think Ural Airlines’ block time is way too short, while I think China Eastern’s block time is way too long. Most other airlines are in the 5hr to 5hr25min range, which seems more reasonable.

But a 6hr5min block time for a flight this short? I’ve never seen a flight blocked at that much time.

Does anyone know of a route where schedules between nonstop flights vary by more than 1hr55min?!

  1. And then there’s United that gave me a 35min connection in LAX between a domestic connection and international flight to SIN

  2. That’s extreme.

    No so extreme, but Aeromexico pads most of its flight.
    Their “shuttle” route between MEX-MTY is only 442 miles but its clocked at almost 2 hours.
    When you fly out, they’re barely serving drinks and starting descent.

  3. I observed this happening just yesterday on my American Shuttle flight from LGA to DCA. The inbound flight (on a Saturday afternoon) was blocked at 90 minutes, whereas the flight last night at 6pm was blocked at 1 hour and 45 minutes. In a way I’m glad they’re doing this, especially for ensuring connections and aircraft utilization planning, but it is crazy to me that 18 years ago these flights were sometimes blocked at 55 minutes and are now blocked at almost double the original time.

    And of course, as usual as luck would have it at DCA, we landed almost 45 minutes early and sat for 15 minutes waiting for a gate to become available. We still arrived at the gate almost 30 minutes early, though!

  4. Just look at short flights within the US.

    One of my most regular routes is 220 miles on an A319 and is often blocked at 1hr 35mins. I could drive that faster in my car in that if I knew law enforcement weren’t about! When I last flew it a couple of weeks ago the flight left 45mins late and we still arrived on time.

  5. I see this one as MU having ~35-40 mins of unnecessary pad but far amplified because of how unrealistic Ural Air’s 4hr10 is.

    You need to assume no headwind, zero taxi before take-off, zero weather delay, zero ATC delay, absolutely most optimal routing with no ATC detours, zero taxi after landing, guaranteed gate availability upon arrival for their 4hr10 to be remotely close to reality.

    The *more* likely scenario is Ural meant 5hr10 but screwed up one of the time zones in filing and ended up with this.

  6. They just screwed up. Ural is routinely an hour late on this flight. Time zone issue as henry LAX says.

  7. @Rick B, I believe 30min is the minimum connection time for most major carriers at their hubs. 35min is plenty of time at LAX even if you’re connecting between T7 and T8. If you have to get to TBIT though that’s a different issue.

  8. Sometimes airlines don’t have a choice in the matter. Both BKK and PEK are Level 3 slot restricted airports, so if the only slots you can get allocated result in somewhat weird block times that’s what you have to go with until you can swap into your preferred time.

  9. China Eastern does this all over. Loom at Tokyo to Shanghai, San Francisco to Shanghai, these are just some that I can think of off the top of my head. MU’s SFO-PVG is blocked at 15 hrs during some seasons; I flew it once and arrived 2 hours early.

  10. My question would be: are published block times domestically or globally audited by some organization to a certain reasonableness?

  11. Maybe an unintended consequence, but corporate travel policies re use of business class are often based on travel time. If a block time is close to 6 hours, if I ran an airline I’d bump it up to a few minutes over 6 hours to capture any corporate travelers who can fly business if the flight is over 6 hours.

  12. Ural flies out in the morning. Presumably their plane sits on the groun overnight at PEK (or arrives very early AM), so probably doesn’t have any issues with late arriving aircraft.

    The MU flight leaves in the evening, which means it hasn’t been sitting on the ground at PEK prior to departing for BKK. It came from somewhere else first and is potentially subject to the horrible cascading delays at PEK. So the longer block time makes sense from that perspective.

  13. Often on a longhaul the flight deck will announce that due to favourable weather or whatever, we will arrive (say) 60 minutes early. Well, big deal! ATC says no slot available for early arrival, slow down/landing before curfew not allowed/land and sit around waiting for a gate to open up, and hey, in the end an on-time arrival.

  14. @Andrew No, Ural come in from SVX and PEK just being the stop but Ural airlines do have the 5th freedom to carry passenger between PEK and BKK

  15. The Ural flight was not able to secure a time slot so it has to schedule that way. It delays every day per FR24.

  16. probably a stupid thought but if say an airline can only get a departure slot at a certain time and an arrival slot at a certain time may they fly a little slower or a little faster (within the limits if the plane of course) to fit in with those slots?

  17. Astana – Kiev. Airastana fly direct with 4h30min. Ukrainian air have 6h20min block. First time I flew this I was amazed when Ukrainian landed 2 hrs “ early”. I was quite confused wondering if I got time zones wrong or if we landed at the wrong airport. For such low volume airports I put it down to Ukrainian being a basket case.

  18. I prefer extra time blocked for flights. Arriving early is way way way better than arriving late when it comes to connections or meetings in your destination city. Gates not being available on occasion seems to be a pretty minor problem in comparison.

  19. In terms of padding time vs flight time I find LGA-ORD the worst route actually – AA routinely blocks their shuttle flights at 2:56 flying time, which on a flight of 734mi is essentially double the actual flight time. Still – rarely arrive early!

  20. Also interesting is KIX-PVG (815mi, example date 13 May):

    MU 730 blocked at 2:05
    MU 516 blocked at 3:15
    HO 1338 blocked at 3:20

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