My most recent FlightAware article highlighted many of the reasonings behind delays with a promise of future insight on how best to get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ on schedule. The following will provide such information to help you navigate around our current delay prone air-traffic system. I’ll also speak on the future of the ATC system which, albeit slowly, is headed in a new direction that promises to alleviate some of the frustrations we face regarding traffic back-ups.
Allow me to begin with a reminder that a majority of flight delays are a result of airspace congestion. Looking up into the seemingly infinite amount of sky above us, it’s a wonder how on earth aircraft can find themselves in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Limitations and inaccuracies of the current ground-based ATC radar system force an over-abundance of cushioned airspace between aircraft, rendering otherwise available airspace useless. The reality is that in fact there is more “sky” available, but the tools necessary to reduce the current spacing tolerances are still in the making. At some point in the future, the ATC Next-Gen system will more efficiently and accurately allow controllers to handle additional aircraft in a given parcel of airspace. This of course will yield fewer delays, something we can all agree is getting out of hand. The Next-Gen system is a topic in-of-itself both technologically and politically speaking. The project is a massive undertaking that requires a major overhaul of our current ATC system and comes with an enormous price tag.
On a positive note, vertically speaking, aircraft spacing has become more compact over the years. Enhancements in on-board aircraft equipment have allowed ATC closer tolerances when it comes to aircraft cruising altitudes. Former requirements for high altitude flights mandated 2,000 feet of separation between east and westbound flights. With the advent of Reduced Vertical Separation Minimum (RVSM) airspace, vertical aircraft spacing has been reduced to 1,000 feet. This in essence has allowed for more aircraft in a given amount of airspace.
However, at the end of the day, constraint relief in the air will still be somewhat offset by the amount of available pavement on the ground. We may be able to fit more aircraft in the sky above us, but if more runways aren’t built, there remains a limitation on the amount of aircraft a given airport can handle.
A major factor behind the whole congestion issue lies in the prominence of regional aircraft usage. In the past, smaller regional aircraft such as turbo-props and regional jets were primarily used to service smaller cities with less demand. In today’s market however, the once few and far between regional flights have become a dominant user of available airspace. The heavy use of these aircraft yields two distinct advantages - one for the paying passenger and one for the airlines themselves.
Despite the common discomforts of traveling in a smaller aircraft cabin, the advent of regional aircraft has allotted for a great deal of frequency between cities, a perk today’s traveler highly values. Whereas two daily flights between cities in larger aircraft were once the norm, perhaps three or four daily flights are possible in a regional jet. In order to operate profitably this way, it’s important to match the number of seats in a given market with demand. Four daily flights between given cities on a Boeing or Airbus may be comfortable, but these aircraft likely won’t be filled to capacity with such frequency. As a result, more daily flights typically mean fewer seats per flight for supply to match demand.
On the flip side of the coin, the benefit to major airline utilization of regional aircraft is more complex. In the past, major airlines typically operated regional flights under the umbrella of the same company. Today however, most major airlines have ridded themselves of operating their own regional flights, and as a result, an entire regional airline industry has surfaced. At a quick glance it may not be noticeable to the passenger, as regional aircraft wear the same paint scheme as their counterpart carrier. However, if you read the fine print on your travel itinerary, you may find that your flight on “ABC” major airline is in fact operated by “XYZ” regional airline. Having numerous regional airlines (and there are many) provides for a competitive bidding process whereby the major airlines place a portion of their flying up for grabs. The regional carriers fiercely compete to win these flying contracts, which ultimately saves the major airline a great deal of money.
How this all relates to traffic congestion may seem obvious. More scheduled flights to meet the demand for frequency equals more aircraft in our constrained ATC system. As a result, many of these flights end up delayed, a fact the airlines try to hide when possible.
An airline’s on-time performance tops the list of importance for most frequent fliers. Many customers don’t mind paying extra for their ticket if it means getting to an important meeting on schedule. In recognition of this, airlines compete to top the list of on-time performers. On-time performance rankings are published monthly by the DOT and are available for review on their website. Many magazines and newspapers also publish these results. On the DOT website, rankings can be arranged in many useful ways to get an idea how an airline or even a specific city-pair performs. If you were to pay close attention to these statistics, you might find that various regional carriers are included in the list. You may also find that the regional carriers typically fare worse than the major airlines do in terms of on-time rankings. Why might this be, and how does it tie into avoiding delays?
On-time rankings are company specific. Even though a major airline may have numerous regional airline affiliates, their on-time statistics are completely separate from one another. All of those regional affiliates could be the worst on-time performers, but yet the parent airline they operate for may still top the list. Considering this fact, it is probably safe to say that when given a situation of prioritizing slots during delays, the major airline will try to make sure their own flights operate ahead of their regional ones. This keeps them looking strong as an on-time powerhouse. However, let me be clear; this is not always the case. The additional parameters that airlines use to gauge slot priority mentioned in the previous article are still a huge factor.
So when it comes to avoiding delays, step one begins with booking your flight. If it’s crucial to get there on time, start off on the right foot by doing some research. Read the fine print before purchasing your tickets. Is a regional carrier operating your desired flight? If so, don’t necessarily avoid the flight, but then again maybe you should. Check the DOT statistics for historical data on that particular airline, or even specific flight number. If the data paints a grim picture, choose a different time of day or a different airline altogether. This advice also applies to the major airlines themselves.
I mentioned in the last article, albeit briefly, that each part of the country houses it’s own unique threats to on-time travel. Just as you know when to avoid certain highways during your daily commute, the same understanding with airports is crucial when it comes to avoiding delays. Being fluent in predictable back-ups around the country will help you narrow down what times are best for travel when purchasing a ticket. For example, a traveler who frequents the New York metro area from San Francisco would find value in understanding that frequent morning fog banks in SFO as well as congestion issues during the afternoon in NYC typically cause delays. Avoiding these predictable issues can be as easy as booking a red-eye flight; leaving SFO at night before the morning fog and arriving into NYC before the afternoon congestion. Educating yourself on these known issues is as easy as watching the morning news. Watch for daily as well as seasonal trends across the country and you’ll begin to paint a clear picture of the system.
Even after purchasing a ticket with careful consideration of the aforementioned, paying close attention to last minute weather issues as well as tracking your flight online can help you react to problems that may still arise. Instead of finding out that your flight has been cancelled due to a winter storm when you arrive at the gate, tune into the morning news before you leave and give yourself a heads-up on the days travel threats. Doing so may convince you to rebook your flight to a different time or through another city altogether. Granted there are typically fees associated with rebooking, but if it’s crucial to be somewhere, it might be worth the pain. Rebooking ahead of the crowd gives you the most options when it comes to available seats on other flights as well as avoiding those long customer service lines.
Flight tracking is another valuable tool that any savvy traveler should utilize. FlightAware’s tracking program allows you to see where your outbound flight is coming from, which is useful in detecting problems upstream. I use this information religiously when I travel. For example, if the airplane I’m catching out of Cleveland is starting its day out in New York where there’s bad weather, I take that as a bad sign. As the day goes on, it’s likely the aircraft will be struggling to keep on schedule, which might prompt me to consider rebooking. Occasionally the airline will substitute aircraft to keep flights as close to on time as possible, but if given the chance, I’d opt to catch an earlier flight instead of gambling on this outcome. Additionally, for registered users of FlightAware, a 3-month history of every flight is available and can be a valuable research tool when considering on-time performance. Again, this is another tool to keep you in the loop and grasp the big picture.
If you retain just one piece of advice after reading this, I encourage you to grab the reins and take control of your itinerary by arming yourself through knowledge and statistics. Utilize the abundance of available resources to paint a clear picture both before and after your ticket purchase. In the end, delays may still find you, but at least you gave it your best shot.