Updated Tuesday, November 20, 2012 at 05:46 PM
ATLANTA — Next time you dawdle at the duty-free store or an airport bar, thinking you have a few more minutes until your flight is set to go, know this: The plane’s doors might have already closed.
There is a lot to complain about in air travel, particularly during the holiday season, with seats and overhead bins filled to capacity and the airlines charging fees for everything from a few inches of extra leg room to a bite to eat. But there is a nugget of good news. The number of flights leaving, and arriving, on time has improved significantly in recent years.
That is partly the result of the airlines flying fewer flights. But it is also because some airlines are focusing more on getting their planes out of the gate on schedule.
“There has been a lot of focus on improving performance across the industry,” said Peter McDonald, United’s chief operations officer. With carry-on space at a premium, he said passengers are also eager to board early. “There’s not a lot of hanging out at the bar until the last minute anymore.”
John Fechushak, Delta Air Lines’ director of operations in Atlanta, compared the daily task to “putting together a puzzle with different pieces every day.”
Here is a sampling of what Delta, for instance, looks at each day for each flight. How many minutes did it take for a plane to reach its gate after landing? Was the cabin door opened within three minutes? How soon were bags loaded in the hold? Did boarding start 35 minutes before takeoff? Were the cabin doors closed three minutes ahead of schedule?
So far this year, 83 percent of all flights took off within 15 minutes of schedule, the highest level since 2003, according to the U.S. Transportation Department, which compiled figures through September. But that average belies a wide range of airline performances.
Hawaiian Airlines, helped by good weather for much of the year, topped the rankings, with 95 percent of flights leaving on time. At US Airways, 89 percent of departures were on time in that period, while Delta had 87 percent.
The biggest laggard this year has been United, which is struggling with its merger with Continental Airlines. The carrier has had three major computer problems this year, including two that crashed the airline’s passenger reservation system, stranding thousands of travelers and causing significant delays and cancellations. Its on-time departure rate, as a result, was 76 percent this year, the industry’s lowest.
American Airlines, which is going through bankruptcy proceedings and has been dealing with contentious labor relations, has also performed poorly. It delayed or canceled hundreds of flights in recent months after pilots called in sick or reported more mechanical problems. The airline also canceled scores of flight after seats were improperly bolted on some of its planes. As a result, nearly 40 percent of American’s flights were late in September.
Government statistics, however, do not provide the full picture: Smaller carriers, like ExpressJet and SkyWest Airlines, which operate regional flights for Delta, United and US Airways, generally have lower on-time performance than their mainline partners.
On-time statistics also vary widely by time of the year, with the worst months in August and January, when summer storms, holiday travel or winter weather cause more disruptions. There are also single events that throw off the airlines’ performances: Statistics, for instance, will be skewed for October by Hurricane Sandy, which shut down air travel through much of the East Coast and led to more than 19,000 flight cancellations.
Carriers have strong incentives to get planes out on time. Airlines now operate schedules that leave little wiggle room. Airplanes typically fly to several places every day, so any delayed flights, especially early in the day, can cascade through the system like falling dominoes and cause headaches to flight planners all day. Airlines often have to burn more fuel to try to make up for lost time, or make new arrangements to accommodate passengers who miss connections.
Airlines have long padded flight times to make up for congestion at airports or delays caused by air traffic controllers. Even so, passengers still expect their flight to take off and land at the time printed on their ticket.
The government considers a flight to be on time if it takes off or lands within 15 minutes of its scheduled time. Airlines focus on on-time departures, known as D zero in the industry.
“As tightly wound as we are, we cannot afford defects on first flights anymore,” said Dave Holtz, Delta’s vice president for operations control, who oversees a NASA-like mission control center. “We need to run our airline like a European train service.”
In the center, 270 people match aircrafts with crews, draw flight plans and review maintenance checks, and keep an eye on passengers who missed their connections and need to be rebooked. If a flight is running late, controllers here can ask the pilot to speed up the flight to try to land on time depending on a host of variables: How many passengers will miss their connection? Can they be rebooked quickly? Is a gate available?
A snapshot of on-time performance across the carrier’s domestic and global operations is displayed on giant screens. One day last week, 225 Delta flights had landed in Atlanta by noon, and 228 had taken off. Of those, 80 percent left at the scheduled time, 89 percent within five minutes, and 94 percent within 15 minutes.
The airline has reviewed dozens of procedures since 2011, particularly those in the critical 30 to 45 minutes that precede each flight. Pilot checklists have been modified to allow pilots to focus on the most critical ones just before flight. The carrier has also looked for ways to speed passenger boarding, a process that takes longer now as people carry more bags aboard.
Delta agents often walk up and down the boarding ramp as passengers file by, offering to check carry-on bags that passengers will probably struggle to store. This reduces the likelihood of a flight attendant having to scramble up and down the aisle looking for space in an overhead bin for a bag, or rushing back to the gate to have it checked.
Delta has also installed computers on the jet bridge, near the aircraft door, so agents can tag those bags that need to be gate-checked. This technology, which can also be used by pilots, mechanics or flight attendants to close a flight or make sure everyone has boarded, has helped meet a goal of closing airplane doors three minutes before departure time for most flights.
Passengers sitting in exit row seats are also allowed to board earlier so flight attendants can brief them about safety and not have to wait until everyone has boarded to do so.
The challenge of departing on time is particularly acute at major hubs like Atlanta, where gates are always being used and where Delta operates nearly 1,000 flights a day. With about 128 planes landing every hour, the airport is a hive of activity. Perched in a tower overlooking the airport, more than a dozen agents at Delta’s coordination center get a panoramic view of the airport, its terminals and the five parallel runways.
This is where the final choreography is orchestrated among ramp agents, fueling vehicles, catering trucks, cabin cleanup and lavatory servicing, flight attendants and pilots, maintenance, flight operations and air traffic control.
“Some days it comes together very easily,” Fechushak, the Delta operations chief, said. “Some days, it’s more challenging.”