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The Sneaky Tactic Airlines Use to Claim an On-Time Flight (Even When It’s Really Delayed)

I frequently fly between Boston and Washington, DC, and the actual flight time has never taken more than 90 minutes. So why does every flight option listed between the two cities cite the trip time as 1 hour and 40 minutes or more? 

The answer to this question is a sneaky tactic that airlines use to improve their chances of having an on-time arrival. Known as “flight padding,” it’s a standard practice in the aviation industry.

Airlines will often overstate the scheduled flight time in order to give themselves a buffer against delays, allowing them to still count a flight towards its on-time statistics, even if the flight is actually slightly delayed.

According to a study conducted by FinanceBuzz, flight padding is a common practice. The study found that on average, airlines are padding their scheduled flight times by just over 10 percent, adding approximately 11 minutes on to a typical two-hour flight. 

Chart breaking down the typical time allotments for different portions of a flight, including time "padding" built in by airlines

When airlines list the flight duration time, they account for more than just the time spent in the air. FinanceBuzz reports, “Of the more than five million domestic flights scheduled in 2022, the median scheduled flight duration was exactly 120 minutes.” That flight duration time includes: 87 minutes of flight time, 22 minutes on the ground, and 11 minutes of schedule padding. 

Flight padding is more common on certain airlines. FinanceBuzz found that Southwest Airlines was the worst offender, buffering nearly 14 percent of their flights with extra time. Hawaiian Airlines adheres the closest to actual flying time, padding just 4.7 percent of flights. 

Since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) defines a delayed flight as arriving 15 minutes or more after its scheduled time, adding 11 extra minutes on the clock can be a huge help to the airline. 

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