Should airline on-time metrics be more straightforward?

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Through August, the on-time average this year among the 10 mainline airlines tracked by the Department of Transportation (DOT) was 77.4%. But for all but the most informed observers, that figure is misleading. 

The reason is a simple matter of semantics. In plain English, of course, on time means arriving at the scheduled time. But that's not what it means in airline industry parlance. 

Instead, the DOT, since it began requiring airlines to submit on-time data in 1987, has defined an on-time flight as one that arrives within 14 minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled arrival. 

It's a standard known as A14, with "A" standing for arrival and "14" denoting minutes. According to a recent analysis by OAG, it's a metric that has largely been adopted by industry regulators around the world. However, debate remains about the value of using what is widely seen as a rather quirky definition. 

For example, Judson Rollins, founder of New Zealand-based consultancy Propel Aviation Solutions, argues that the DOT should be focusing instead on A0, a measurement that is based on arriving at or before the scheduled time "because that’s what the customer cares about."

OAG, conversely, raised the question of whether a more lenient definition of "on time" would be appropriate.

"Fifteen minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Many of us have been delayed that long, and it wasn't so bad," the OAG analysis states. "We could tell ourselves that maybe 30 minutes makes more sense and is certainly more realistic in an operating environment where so many factors which contribute to delays lie outside the control of an airline."

Exactly how the A14 standard was developed is a bit of a mystery. The DOT didn't directly answer a question about it for this report, and IATA spokesman Perry Flint said the organization had no subject expert on the matter. The trade group Airlines for America said that it believes the standard dates to the 1950s, but it didn't offer an explanation of its original rationale. OAG senior analyst John Grant said he believes the idea of A14 emanated from IATA.

"It was an arbitrary time standard that was set in the annals of time," he said. "There is simply no more to it than that."

Defining flights that reach the gate 14 minutes and 59 seconds late as on time clearly has the effect of making airlines appear timelier than they are. But Grant said the standard has tangible benefits for both airlines and passengers.

If airlines lacked that 15-minute cushion, they would likely need to increase aircraft turn times and take on additional planes in order to keep up on-time performance, he said. Those steps would add costs that airlines would likely pass on to passengers. Further, the use of additional aircraft would be a net negative from an emissions standpoint, Grant said. 

Rollins, though, said that airlines should hold themselves to an A0 standard, both for the sake of their customers and for operational reasons. He argued that the more an airline is willing to tolerate being behind its scheduled time, the more complications connecting passengers can expect. 

"So you have to build more padding into the system," Rollins said. "You have longer turn times, longer block times. You are essentially at a 14-minute handicap."

Rollins said that airlines should actually focus most closely on departing on time, since arrival times are sometimes out of their control due to airport and air traffic control delays. Meanwhile, on-time departures correlate to on-time arrivals. 

Some airlines agree. 

For example, at the ARC Travel Connect conference in October, United president Scott Kirby said that on-time departure (known as D0) is more important than an airline’s DOT on-time percentage. United’s A14 performance this year, incidentally, was seventh among U.S. mainline airlines through August. 

Meanwhile, in early 2017, Delta, which is consistently among the industry leaders in on-time performance, updated its corporate "operational performance commitment" (OPC) to replace A14 with A0. In the OPC, Delta guarantees it will be timelier than American or United each year. 

Bob Somers, Delta's senior vice president of global sales, said at the time, "The addition of A0 to the OPC ensures that our standard of on time meets that of our customers."

The A14 standard is supported by Airlines for America, however. Early this year the trade group told the DOT that any effort to change the on-time definition should be undertaken, "if at all," through a formal rulemaking, spokeswoman Katherine Estep wrote in an email. She said that changing the standard could cause concerns such as increased fuel consumption and greater difficulty in comparing operational results over time.

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