Recently, I was flying to New York from Los Angeles. American Airlines Flight 10 left LAX at 10 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive at New York's JFK Airport at 6:07 the next morning. But when the "red eye" landed at 6, the pilot anounced, "Will the flight attendants please prepare for an early arrival?"
My question: Early compared to what?
Ten years ago, the same flight, flying at the same time, was scheduled to arrive in New York at 5:44 a.m. Officially, we had arrived seven minutes early in 1990. But by 1980 standards, we had arrived 16 minutes late.
The airline could boast it had arrived early. And I could argue that we were late. Who's right?
Technically, the airline is, since it arrived ahead of the time printed on the official schedule. But the real issue is truth in scheduling.
To be sure, delays in the air and on the ground are at an all-time high. Delays in the New York area, for example, have increased 45% in the last year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
But airline gridlock and scheduling problems are not new.
More than three years ago, in an attempt to improve airline on-time performance, the U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring airlines to report their on-time performance. Since September, 1987, a flight is considered "on time" if it departs from or arrives at its gate within 15 minutes of the scheduled time.
However, since the reporting rule went into effect, a number of airlines have been playing with their schedules, adding extra minutes to the official flight times.
And what's been the result?
On one hand, DOT reports that major domestic airlines have continued to improve their on-time performance. In July, for example, the 12 largest U.S. carriers reported operating 80.9% of their domestic flights within 15 minutes of schedule.
And DOT does list 52 flights on its "list of shame"--flights that were late more than 80% of the time. In August, Delta Flight 977, from Philadelphia to Atlanta, was late 100% of the time.
However, since so many of the airlines have padded their flight times on the schedules, a majority of the on-time performance reporting, as well as the final statistics, are essentially meaningless for most travelers.
"The on-time performance stats that get reported," says Kenneth Mead, director of transportation issues for the General Accounting Office, "do not reflect the efficiency in air travel."
Earlier this year, Mead's team at GAO issued a report to Congress that investigated whether the airlines had adjusted their flight schedules unrealistically, whether on-time performance statistics reflected improved airline efficiency and whether or not additional federal agency observation was required to monitor airline performance.
"It's true," says Mead, "that in 1980, you could go from Washington to Chicago in 2 hours and 15 minutes. But now the schedule shows 2 hours and 45 minutes and the airline claims they're on time. If the airlines play by the rules, then the on-time disclosure stats are only intended to require how on-time the airlines are . . . based on their schedules."
And therein lies the problem.
What did the GAO report find?
"First," says Mead, "we discovered that yes, the airlines did adjust their schedules to improve on-time performance. It's a great deal for airlines if they can boast arrivals within the new time limits listed in their schedules. But what surprised us is that, even with the additional time on the schedules, the on-time performance stats are still nothing to write home about.
"There are still significant delays. And for business travelers who are time-sensitive, the on-time stats are not indicative of increased efficiency. Instead, they are indicative of how long it really takes you to get from one point to another."
There's another problem that GAO discovered with on-time performance reports by airlines: flights that are delayed or canceled for mechanical reasons.
Officially, mechanical problems exempt a flight from being included in on-time performance stats. It's an important exemption, because of safety considerations. "We don't want airlines flying broken planes just to support an on-time performance percentage," says one investigator.
However, the GAO investigation found that while the Department of Transportation "monitors the number of flights excluded . . . from the data for mechanical problems, it does not verify that these flights had mechanical problems."
While mechanical problems must also be reported to the FAA, the report said that the FAA "does not record the mechanical problem data in a way that allows DOT to cross-check the information."
According to the most recent DOT statistics, more than 23,000 flights are excluded from on-time data per month because of apparent mechanical problems.