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In the 1960s, it took five hours to fly from New York to Los Angeles, and only 45 minutes from New York to Washington DC.
Today, those same flights are more than 6 hours and 75 minutes, respectively, despite the fact that the airports did not change their location.
It is called “drag time” or “fill time” . And it’s a secret that airlines do not want you to know, especially because of the negative effects it has on the environment.
That ” padding ,” in English, is the additional time that airlines take to fly from A to B. And since those flights are constantly delayed, airlines have accumulated experienced delays in their schedules for decades, instead of improving your operations.
It might seem innocuous to the passenger; After all, that means that even if you take off late, you will be pleasantly surprised to arrive on time at your destination.
However, the global trend poses several problems: not only is your trip longer, but, in addition, creating the illusion of punctuality means that airlines have no pressure to be more efficient, which means that congestion and emissions carbon will continue to rise.
“On average, more than 30% of flights arrive more than 15 minutes late each day, despite the drag time,” says Capt. Michael Baiada, president of the aviation consultancy ATH Group, citing the Air Travel Consumer Report ( Air Transportation Consumer Report) of the United States Department of Transportation.
The figure used to be 40%, but that effect – and not the operational improvements – increased the number of flights arriving on time. “With the drag time, the airlines play with the system to cheat you.”
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He insists that if airlines addressed operational problems, customers would benefit directly .
“The drag schedule generates higher costs in fuel consumption, noise and CO2, which means that if the efficiency of the airline increases, the costs decrease, which benefits both the environment and the rates.”
Of course, airlines know that customers value punctuality.
Delta Air Lines, for example, does everything possible to ensure that its flights arrive on time more frequently, according to the US Department of Transportation.
The company attributes it to its US $ 2 billion investment in a new fleet, cabins and airport facilities, but continually emphasizes that “performance on time” makes prices go up.
So, if arriving on time is profitable for customers and airlines, why do not they work to be more efficient instead of lengthening flight times?
How late is it late?
The final goal is “A0”, or reach the door at exactly the time . If a flight arrives early or late, it can alter other things, such as door availability or airport capacity.
There is even a language to describe this punctuality. Thus, any delay beyond A0 adds the number of minutes with which the aircraft arrived late to the door: A15 for an aircraft that was delayed 15 minutes. But anything between A0 and A14 is not considered “late” by the Department of Transportation.
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The agency created a global standard to measure “on-time” flights before the modern data and communications that make A0 viable today.
That means that airlines still have an opportunity to arrive “on time” , instead of meeting a very specific schedule, which can generate congestion.
Air traffic control must make concessions for this, because if there are too many planes arriving at the same time, airports are saturated. Therefore, air control “extends” the approaches of the aircraft, reducing the arrival rhythms .
To be fair, airlines have invested billions of dollars in technologies to allow more efficient flight routes, according to the trade association Airlines for America . But that did not change the percentage of delays, which are still 30%.
Many things can cause a delay, but Baiada believes that 80% of the factors involved – such as the schedule, the flow of arrival at the airport, the availability of ships or maintenance – are under the control of the airlines .
However, to date that has been referred to air control.
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“Once a plane leaves the door, the airline forgets the issue until it reaches the next airport”; Explain.
Baiada says there is a better option. They could monitor aircraft and adjust operations throughout the flight, choosing the sequence, flight speeds and routes for traffic control to concentrate in the airspace.
Part of the problem is that the schedules are designed by airlines for ideal conditions, Tom Hendricks , a retired airline executive , told BBC Capital.
“But any day you can have alterations in climate, air traffic or the company, and the system must adapt.”
However, Hendricks believes that most airlines could n do more to ensure that the flow of aircraft to the airport as efficient as possible, because that is an integral part of its economic success.
Another option would be to reduce the number of flights, but the schedules of the airlines are designed to meet the demand of the buyer. Then, if there were fewer flights, the rates would increase.
Better late than never
So, is there a solution on the horizon?
One of the biggest assumptions is that modernizing air traffic control will solve the problem. Billions of dollars halved delays caused by air traffic since 2007, while those generated by airlines soared, according to a 2016 Bloomberg report.
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Baiada created a system called Business-Based Flow Management (BBFM) for airlines to work with air traffic to be more efficient.
It was tested in 2012 by four agencies in five airports. And it reduced delays, fuel consumption, noise, emissions and congestion, rapidly increasing capacity. Delta saved US $ 74 million on fuel alone.
With airlines under pressure to reduce costs, increase profits and limit their environmental impact, why are not they already working on it?
“The airlines invested in technology with uneven results,” says Hendricks. “Now they have to be very careful in what they invest.”
Hendricks, who worked at Delta when he was testing Baiada’s technology, was initially reluctant to use the system. He needed some analysis from the Georgia Institute of Technology to counteract his skepticism. Although he is convinced that he has potential, he believes he needs more proof.
How does all this affect the passengers? With airlines using the system in their favor, flights will probably last longer , as more and more flights sail through the skies.
“Prolonging tactics such as drag time has become a common practice for airlines,” says passenger rights activist Paloma Salmerón, spokesperson for AirHelp.
She believes that this tactic not only allows airlines to improve their times, but also facilitates their “three hour magic limit” of delay , the threshold that qualifies passengers to submit compensation claims under European law.
“Many airlines try to make passenger complaints difficult, and the tactic of extending flight times is another way to reduce the possibility of a passenger complaining and being compensated.”
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Even so, padding has not yet solved the problems of the aviation system that affect consumers.
“Many airlines can improve their efficiency and Baiada’s solution is one of them,” says airline consultant Bob Mann.
“As far as delays and congestion are concerned, airlines still complain that it is an air traffic control problem, but it is not, I think they should stop complaining and do something about it, for the benefit of customers, employees, investors and the communities they serve. “