Delays are often seen as a sad but unavoidable fact of life, but joined up planning across the industry could make radical improvements and help differentiate those airlines that achieve a better performance

For an industry awash with performance targets and customer service initiatives, it is perhaps somewhat strange that air transport has made so little progress on punctuality. After all, arriving on time is not only fundamental to the efficient running of any transport network, but also a basic measure of success for the customer. Yet, while delays are certainly an ever-present issue, progress to raise levels of punctuality has been at best incremental, and targets for improvement fall far short of the radical step changes being called for on other industry issues. So why are aircraft always late, and what, if anything, can the industry do to make them less so?

That air transport has a problem with delays is not seriously in doubt, at least in the more mature, congested markets of North America and Europe. The lull in traffic over the past few years has admittedly taken some of the edge off the congestion problem, but as flying returns to the peak there is evidence that delays too are rising in step. Figures for last year are not encouraging. The US majors notched up a drop of between three and six percentage points in punctuality at most of their major hubs, with the level of on-time arrivals routinely in the 70-75% bracket.

It is true that Europe regularly posts figures for on-time arrivals in the range of 75-85% or better, but these averages too can be deceptive. These figures only count departures or arrivals that are more than 15 minutes late, but given the relatively short stage lengths flown within the region that may be scant comfort for a passenger on a 45-minute short-haul flight. In any case, the published percentages represent industry averages, with the relatively good on-time performance at less congested airports balancing out a more serious problem at many of the busiest hubs. Neither do the figures capture outright cancellations.

The harsh reality is that for many major airlines less than half of the flights from their major hubs could be taking off or landing at the scheduled time. Departure punctuality for long-haul flights out of Europe’s hubs is generally around the 65% mark or worse, with a number of operators experiencing punctuality percentages in the low 50s, such as Alitalia out of Rome Fiumicino or Air France at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Such figures will resonate much more than the headline statistics with the actual experience of business travellers as they struggle for on-time arrivals.

Airlines, airports and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) may well protest at this point that they are indeed engaged in a constant battle against delays. That is true enough, but the blunt fact remains that the industry continues to live with a surprising level of under-performance, treated more or less as a fact of air transport life. It is particularly surprising given the significance of punctuality to a connected network operation and the cost of disruption in terms of both hard cash and customer perception. There is little by way of any ambitious, long-term targeting of a radical change in punctuality and no airline, for example, publishes the percentage of passengers that travel with their bags on the originally planned flight at the scheduled time.

There could be good commercial reasons why the industry will need to raise its game. First, there is a real possibility that punctuality will become a source of differentiation in an increasingly competitive short-haul marketplace. Lufthansa’s words when appointing new hub managers for its operations at Frankfurt and Munich airports seem to recognise as much: “The hubs have a decisive effect on the impression on quality gained by Lufthansa’s customers.” Gordon Bethune’s revival of Continental Airlines in the mid-1990s equally demonstrated how a run up the punctuality rankings could be used as a highly visible symbol of a carrier’s rising fortunes – and it worked.

Leading low-cost airlines, such as Southwest Airlines and Ryanair, are also pushing the issue. With their tight, no-frills operations, often from less congested airports, these competitors are already beginning to promote their on-time performance as an additional reason to book.

The second driver comes from an increasing interest from regulators in championing the cause of late and frustrated passengers. The US Department of Transportation already exerts some public pressure, not least through its league table of airline punctuality. In Europe, the previously muted regulators have begun to raise the temperature with the highly controversial passenger rights legislation, which has begun to crank up compensation for grounded customers.

The punctuality issue is also connected to wider initiatives to tackle European congestion and slot regulation. The last round of price regulation for London Heathrow, for example, included a congestion term, with potential penalties attached. The environmental debate could also play a part in penalising poor punctuality as regulators seek to lower the fuel unnecessarily burnt by aircraft sitting on the ground, stuck in holding patterns or flying inefficient flight plans

Airline reaction to such regulatory interest is itself instructive. For example, the first response to the European passenger rights legislation has been to mount a legal challenge spearheaded by IATA. Admittedly the airlines have a point in complaining about a particularly poorly drafted and contradictory piece of legislation, but the main issue essentially comes down to an argument over the limits of indemnity and not about solving the fundamental issues that prompted it in the first place. This is symptomatic of an industry trait to assign blame to others rather than actually solve the problem together.

So, IATA has a large and complex coding system of delay reason allocation, which in effect allows airlines to pass the buck to a whole host of other agencies and factors, from weather to air traffic delays. Equally, local ANSPs tend to focus only on one particular piece of the problem for which they are directly accountable, regardless of the wider consequences. So an ASNP may measure its performance on meeting targets for minimum in-bound holding times, but may only be able to achieve this by having other aircraft held on the ground waiting for clearance at some distant out-station. Such system-wide penalties are rarely calculated.

System-wide solution

That is close to the core of the problem. Hitting a series of average targets at local level simply does not add up to a solution for the system as a whole. Take, for example, Eurocontrol’s work in fixing Europe’s severe problems with en route delays that surfaced back in the late-1990s. Initiatives such as reduced vertical separation minima and collaborative decision making have helped towards an 80% fall in the number of such delays in Europe over the past five years. Yet that has not been translated into equivalent improvements in overall performance. Instead, the problem has shifted to air traffic flow management delays at airports – unchanged over the same five years.

This conflict shows up in the performance of Europe’s low-cost carriers. They have been able to take full advantage of en-route improvements, but at the same time they have not had the same airport delay penalty given their tendency to avoid congested hubs. Ryanair hit 83% on-time departures last year, up by 20 percentage points on two years ago, while easyJet, which flies to more mainline airports, still saw performance rise by 10 points to hit 76%.

To solve the central problem, the different elements of the air transport chain need to work together to create meaningful solutions to real-life problems and they need to know where the accountability really lies. That translates into two underlying fault lines that will have to be addressed:

 Limitations in the processes that airlines and the rest of the industry use to construct schedules and respond to the vagaries of a weather-influenced, international and heavily inter-dependent system,

 The governance and accountabilities for addressing the issues which go across organisational boundaries

The process limitations are far from restricted to planning by ANSPs. Airlines themselves tend to concentrate only on factors directly within their control, such as turnaround processes or maintenance regimes, while failing to address the wider factors that affect punctuality. Schedule “bunching” at peak times, typically at the beginning and end of the day, puts an impossible strain on the busiest hubs, many of which are now operating at or near capacity throughout the day without the firebreaks that once acted as a safety valve. It was exactly to reduce such pressure points that American Airlines two years ago pioneered depeaking at its Chicago and Dallas hubs to create a more even flow of aircraft throughout the day.

Depeaking experiment

Other carriers have been looking at this experiment and some have even begun to follow suit. However, the arguments in favour of a more realistic and robust operational plan would first have to win out over the commercial arguments in favour of maximising connection possibilities and first-out/last-back scheduling – that is often not the case. American only addressed the issue after its network integrity had already effectively broken down at Chicago.

The airport planning process is no more joined up. Capacity assumptions for runways, terminals and airspace are often inconsistent, leading to a poor understanding of where the true bottlenecks lie. In the same way, there are differences between schedule, slot and calculated take-off times. IATA’s slot profile too is no more than a rough average, taken across several aircraft types and weather conditions etc. In reality, the aircraft type has a huge bearing on the slot profile.

Throughout the planning process there are many such broad averages and “fair weather” assumptions. The reality is quite different. Not only is the profile of flights during the day unlikely to be a smooth manageable profile, but there are also big seasonal swings in demand over the year. When a theoretical plan meets the reality of sharp peaks and troughs, something has to give and that is punctuality.

The way in which an airport operates under disruption, illustrates the point. In severe weather conditions flows will inevitably be reduced and some flights will have to be cancelled. But without agreed local rules as to which flights are cancelled and by whom, airlines will scramble to get their aircraft into the airport using such capacity as is available. A predetermined plan could give a more orderly process and some better choices. For example, it might be more efficient to prioritise take-offs to avoid simply moving the airspace congestion on to the ground as grounded aircraft take up scarce parking slots.

Such airport-related issues have only been compounded by the drive by carriers everywhere to learn the lessons of low-cost competitors and hike aircraft utilisation levels. And as airports too become increasingly congested there is less slack anywhere in the system. That means that over the day every delayed flight has a greater potential to cause knock-on effects at other airports down the line.

The second part of the problem centres on the fact that no one stakeholder is in a position to guarantee performance or to take accountability. If there were robust structures in place for managing interfaces and integrating processes between the players this would matter little, but such structures do not exist.

Airport operators committees represent a diverse constituency, with conflicting objectives, and the station managers who sit on such boards are not necessarily empowered to make key decisions on behalf of their carrier. For their part, airports and ANSPs tend to take a passive role in operational performance, given their need for neutrality. And for what are effectively monopoly infrastructure providers the penalties for under-performance are low.

The historical perspective has been to emphasise the logistics of aircraft in the air. In this environment the size of the aircraft is not significant and averages do work. Increasingly, the real bottlenecks are on the ground – and the thinking needs to perceive flying as feeding a complex ground logistics challenge rather than the other way round. This too has been exacerbated by the drive by carriers to become leaner and more efficient, so reducing levels of contingency aircraft or facilities.

As the more mature air travel markets become more competitive, delivery issues must surely continue to emerge as a key component of differentiation. It is not so long ago that air cargo was taken by storm by consolidators offering time-definite products.

It is true that the industry is responding to rising demand with urgent initiatives to raise airport and airspace capacity. But there is little evidence that such initiatives will do better than keep pace with demand. If punctuality is to improve then what is needed is more energy devoted to the problem and the setting of higher standards to provide the right level of motivation to improve. Airlines can and should continue to work towards incremental change with local partners, but aircraft will continue to be late unless they push for much more challenging goals and higher levels of co-operation across the whole industry.


Source: Airline Business