Why does it seem that almost half of my flights are late?
The next time your airline claims your flight is “on time,” check your watch. Airlines are allowed to count any arrival within 14 minutes and 59 seconds of schedule as “on time,” an obscure rule called A-14. And now consumer advocates want to make A-14 go away.
This post was originally published on Forbes.com.
That’s right, the Department of Transportation (DOT), which regulates domestic air travel, essentially gives your airline a license to fudge the numbers. And that maybe the real reason why your flight is late: An airline can miss its arrival time by almost 15 minutes and still claim it’s on time.
But a new survey conducted by Travelers United, a passenger advocacy organization based in Washington, suggests on-time numbers don’t match travelers’ expectations. It’s calling on the government to update its definition of “on-time” and revise its reporting standards immediately.
“The Department of Transportation needs to improve its on-time reporting,” says Charlie Leocha, chairman of Travelers United. “Most fliers do not know that the current system is based on a 1950s-era rule.”
How important is an on-time arrival to passengers?
It doesn’t get any more important, according to the survey. More than twice as many travelers want an on-time arrival than want additional legroom. An on-time departure also ranks highly, with passengers deeming factors like friendly service, Wi-Fi, food, and entertainment, as less of a priority. That’s a lot of passengers asking why their flight is late.
Delayed flights are a top concern at my consumer advocacy organization. Unfortunately, there’s nothing anyone can do to recover the lost time.
At the same time, there’s hardly a consensus on the issue of on-time arrivals. The airline industry, which is accustomed to a rule that’s half-a-century old, has baked A-14 into its current schedules. And beyond agreeing that on-time arrivals are important, there remains a broad range of opinions about what, exactly, is on-time.
Flights used to be point-to-point. Today they are 70 percent connecting flights
For decades, the DOT has allowed a 14-minute grace period. The Civil Aviation Board (CAB), which regulated airlines and airfares before deregulation, established the A-14 rule in the 1950s. Curiously, almost no one outside the airline industry is aware of this generous government definition of “on time.” For consumers, it’s almost impossible to find the definition or the rule behind it, according to Travelers United.
Critics say the definition is far too lenient — and outdated. When the CAB developed its grace period, the airline system used mostly point-to-point flights. But times have changed. Travelers United’s survey showed that 69 percent of respondents had connecting flights.
“Today, connecting flights are far more important than nonstop flights when it comes to passengers’ stress and the importance of on-time operations,” says Leocha.
Even with a rule like A-14, only 80 to 90 percent of flights are considered on time, says Shane Chapman, senior vice president of airline industry relations at Ovation Travel Group. The reason? Air carriers have built this grace period into their schedules, a practice called padding.
“Airlines pad as much time as they can but still need to keep this in check to allow for each aircraft to complete turns without additional equipment,” he says. “If all flights were graded as on-time or late based on the published airline schedules, the on-time percentages would drop to as low as 60 percent.”
But it is also effectively a license to operate delayed flights, knowing they won’t get dinged for it. Observers say there’s a reason why your flight is late. The government has sanctioned it.
What passengers say is “on time”
According to the study, 36 percent of respondents said they took “on time” to literally mean at the arrival time or earlier. But 39 percent said they would give the airline anywhere from 1 to 5 minutes and still consider the flight on time. Another 18 percent gave the airline a little more leeway, saying 6 to 10 minutes would still be OK.
Only 5 percent agreed with the DOT’s definition.
I asked air travelers, and the responses, like the survey, were all over the map.
Several corporate travelers said they would be happy if the airline arrived on schedule, give or take a few minutes.
“I expect my plane to arrive within five to ten minutes of the advertised scheduled time of arrival for short- or medium-haul flights and 30 minutes for long-haul flights,” says Matthias Will, a financial blogger.
Mark Bergman, a business traveler based in the Denver area, measures “on time” based on when he arrives at the gate. And he, too, is content for an airline to keep its published schedule.
“If the airline makes up the travel time and gets me to my destination on schedule, it does not matter to me if they lose time on the front end,” he says.
Official on-time is at the gate with the brake on
Some passengers expressed their unhappiness with airline practices when it comes to claiming an on-time arrival. Nancy Aronson recently flew from Zurich to Washington. The aircraft landed early. Then the pilot reminded everyone on the plane that they were 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
“But it took more than a half-hour to get to a gate,” she says. “We just sat on a runway and nobody said anything. On-time — but not really.”
For other leisure travelers, the definition seems to be more generous. “An on-time flight should not be later than 30 minutes,” says Victor Marrero, a retired veteran. “You have to take into consideration if you have a connecting flight.”
Bottom line: There is no commonly accepted consumer definition of on-time, at least when it comes to airlines. But only a small minority of passengers think A-14 is OK. Though it is the DOT definition by regulation.
Why A-14 has got to go
Travelers United says it’s time to scrap A-14 regulation and replace it with something closer to reality. Seventy-five percent of airline customers expect flights to arrive within five minutes of scheduled arrival, its survey shows.
“Changing that definition will take a rulemaking,” says Leocha. And in today’s anti-regulatory environment, enacting a new rule would be unlikely, at least in the short term. However, the actual arrival-time data is collected every day, minute-by-minute, by DOT. Giving consumers access to that information as a part of the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report would be a good start. That change does not require any new regulations or increases in budgets.
The government can also do a better job of reporting on-time data. Instead of saying a flight is on time, it should tighten the rules, creating a more realistic definition of “on time” and reporting actual arrival times. Better reporting will allow passengers to make more informed choices about the airlines they fly, lowering stress about connecting flights and checked baggage.
But for the average passenger, this study pulls back the curtain on one of the airline industry’s best-kept secrets. For years, the government has given them a license to lie about their on-time statistics. It’s difficult to imagine any other business being allowed to claim it’s on time if it’s up to 15 minutes late.
That definition contradicts not only the dictionary definition … but also common sense.
Originally posted on Forbes.com.
Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can’t. He’s the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, and the Washington Post. If you have a consumer problem you can’t solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher’s articles here.