Posted by: Jerry Garrett | February 4, 2010

Why a Four-Hour Flight Now Takes Seven

An extreme view of today's overcrowded airline industry (Canon U.S.A.)

In today’s Wall Street Journal, reporter Scott McCartney has a story entitled, “Why a Six-Hour Flight Now Takes Seven.” It’s well-researched and recommended reading: full of interesting details and data. But the title should really be “Why a Four-Hour Flight Now Takes Seven.”

In his thesis, the author cites a coast-to-coast Delta flight that used to be scheduled for six hours, but is now listed at seven. I can recall a time when that flight

747: Coast to Coast in 4 hours

took just four.

Mr. McCartney points out carriers have been arbitrarily adding minutes to “block times” – which are the scheduled durations of trips. This is, in effect, adding slop time so they can actually be late, without getting dinged in U.S. Department of Transportation “On-Time Performance” statistics. This is meant to cover up laziness, incompetence and inefficiency in the system.

Carriers have also cut back on flights, so they have fewer planes, flying less frequently, he notes. The objective is fuller planes and more revenue per seat. But it’s a cattle-car travel experience now for passengers. This also means the carriers have mothballed unused planes, as well as some of their employees – as many as they can get away with, without provoking the unions. So people and planes often don’t fly as much as they could. (Southwest Airlines

Southwest 737

used to be a maverick against this kind of thinking, but lately they’ve padded schedules too.)

The extra block times can also help ease congestion at airports. I won’t attempt here to paraphrase his explanation of how; it’s complex. Read the article.

The block time “bloat” has added about 10 percent to the duration of the average flight since 1996, Mr. McCartney has calculated.

But the problem goes back much further in time, and involves other factors not mentioned in Mr. McCartney’s otherwise valuable article. You can count on me to mention and exploit them.

In one extreme example, Mr. McCartney shows how a Delta flight from Atlanta to Orlando actually takes 39 percent longer now than it did in 1996 (103 minutes versus 74 minutes). In passing he notes that route used to be serviced by a Boeing 767, but a 757 flies it now. I suggest the 757, with a smaller capacity, accounts for higher per-seat revenue; and, I think it is being flown at slower speeds, to save fuel.

I would also suggest even 74 minutes is a bloated time. In the 1980s, I recall this flight took about 65 minutes (or perhaps even less). Both ATL and MCO are certainly much more crowded now than then. But block time bloat has been a trend at least the last 25 years. (SLC-LAX used to take 55 minutes; with the time change, you’d land 5 minutes before you took off.

Boeing 757s

Now the route is scheduled for up to 2:04!)

Oldtimers may remember, like I do, when an MCO-LGA flight took 2:00; I recall speedy Lockheed L-1011s

Lockheed stopped making the L-1011 in 1984 because it failed to meet revenue projections

used to fly this route. Now it takes up to 2:55! This route is now flown by smaller, slower Airbus A320s, Boeing 737s, and McDonnell Douglas MD-80s.

These planes are also used for coast-to-coast routes, where their slower cruising speeds extrapolate over longer distances into flights that take hours longer.

The coast-to-coast Delta flight that Mr. McCartney cites at the outset uses a Boeing 757, with a cruising speed of Mach 0.80 (probably being flown at 0.76-0.78). This route used to be plied by DC-10s

DC-10 production ended in 1989

flying at Mach 0.82-0.84, Boeing 747s at Mach 0.84-0.85 and L-1011s capable of 0.86 and more.

Sadly, the L-1011s and DC-10s are retired now, as are most 747s (hundreds of which now rot in Mojave Desert storage yards). They’ve been replaced by planes that are less comfortable, less capable, smaller and slower. The speed differences, plus overcrowded airports and skies, and inefficiencies in scheduling, have added hours – not minutes – to almost every major route.

So that’s why I contend, with all due respect to Mr. McCartney, today’s seven-hour flight a generation ago took just four. If this trend isn’t halted, and reversed (as it should be), where will the commercial airline industry be in another 10-14 years? In competition with the train?

Jerry Garrett

February 4, 2010

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Responses

  1. If this strategy is being driven by the need for a good “on time” record, airlines should stop the smoke and mirrors, and abandon the board-early, pull-away-from-gate-and-sit-on-tarmac for-40-minutes-ploy as well as the slowed down flights and get back to “moving their tails” for their customers who should come first.

  2. I enjoyed the article and thanks in acquiescence to posting such valuable poop as an another of all of us to shoplift perception of, I throw approximately it both of oneself understood and sympathetic and I mesa to hear from it as again as I can.

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  3. I think the issue is increased competition and pressure to cut costs. The airline industry has added so many costs to the flight ticket (i.e. charge for checked bags) that they are looking to “look good” somewhere else. So if you pad the flight time and arrive “early” – they look better to the consumer.

    Silly thing is, is that the consumer is getting smarter everyday. So it’s not working anymore.

  4. Hey, Jerry…I lost a day of work poking around your entries…thanks! This timing phenomenon reminds me of my friend who sets his clock 15 minutes ahead to prevent him from being late. I was on a United flight from IAD to LAX on Saturday that arrived in 4 hours. While we benefited from favorable winds, that was an hour and 55 minutes ahead of the scheduled time! Usually, one is rewarded by sitting on the tarmac and waiting for a gate to open up, but we actually were able to disembark early in order to spend the next hour waiting for our baggage to appear!

  5. I remember flying from Washington D.C. to LAX in the mid 1970s in a 747. We reached LAX in exactly 4 hours (rotation to touchdown), based on amazing tail winds. The pilot told us it was the fastest east-west flight ever made by a commercial airliner. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to find proof.


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