Why Are Flight Times Between Destinations Mysteriously Getting Longer?

If it seems like flight times are getting longer... it's not just you. (But it's complicated.)

Depending on how you look at it, air travel has either come a long way in the past few decades (it's safer; the food's better, and lower costs mean it's more accessible to all), or it has regressed badly (extra fees for everything; smaller seats; increasingly awful passengers, and the emergence of something called "basic economy"). You might reasonably expect, however, that given the giant technological leaps society has made, that air travel would at least be getter faster. Alas, you'd be wrong.

Sure, low-cost carrier Norwegian recently broke the record for the fastest transatlantic flight recorded on a subsonic commercial aircraft by zipping from New York JFK to London’s Gatwick airport in just 5 hours and 13 minutes; and, in late March, Qantas flew from London Heathrow to Perth, Australia in a record-breaking 15 hours and 53 minutes (the Qantas flight was the first ever passenger-carrying non-stop flight from the U.K to Australia; the previous record holder was a Royal Air Force flight).

Yet, according to The Telegraph, in 1996 most airlines scheduled between 7 hours 30 mins and 8 hours 15 mins for the flight from Heathrow to JFK; "now, some opt for 8 hours 30 mins or more." A flight from New York La Guardia to Chicago that airlines estimated would take around 2 hours 30 mins in 1996 is now scheduled at 2 hours 50 mins. Research by OAG, the aviation analyst, carried out for The Telegraph found that over the last couple of decades, scheduled flight times have increased by as much as 50 per cent. What gives?

One theory floated by The Telegraph is what industry insiders call "schedule padding;" a practice that allows airlines to better impress passengers when the flight arrives "early." The Telegraph gives the aforementioned Norwegian flight as an example. 

Norwegian scheduled 6 and a half hours for the journey — 77 minutes more than it actually took, even though it departed JFK 24 minutes late.

"The flight carrying 284 passengers departed New York at 11:44 a.m. and arrived at London at 9:57 p.m. — 53 minutes early,” boasted the press release. A perfect example of how overestimating the flight time can turn a tardy service into an on-time one."

Indeed, experience seems to lend weight to the theory: Haven't we all been frustrated with a flight that departs behind schedule but then impressed when we "magically" arrive at our destination on time or, even, ahead of schedule. "Another boost for the airline’s punctuality stats," says The Telegraph, which goes on to quote a pilot telling Reader’s Digest in 2013: “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.”

Airlines, however, deny this. "We do not and have never adjusted flight times to improve on-time performance," said Ryanair, 86 percent of whose flights landed on time in February 2018, "as this would reduce the efficiency of our operations.”

John Grant, a senior analyst at OAG also believes that, given that flight routes and airports are getting busier, it’s a little more complex.

“There is a perception that airlines are increasingly padding their schedules," he told The Telegraph, "but they are also having to include allowances for longer taxiing times at those airports that have become more congested."

Whatever the reasons, one thing seems to be true — that flights generally are not getting much shorter, no matter how you calculate it. Might as well settle in and get comfortable.

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