21st Century Flights Still on 20th Century Time

December 17, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – We’ve all dealt with it, and many of us are about to experience it again as we head home for the holidays. The long flight followed by a breathless sprint across an airport terminal all the while hoping our connecting flight is somehow, miraculously, still awaiting us at the gate.

Why does air travel work like this? And why are predictions of a plane’s arrival time at the gate so woefully wrong so often?

According to Travelers United, a consumer advocacy group which has looked closely at the issue, it’s because the current system for determining whether a flight is “on-time” is over 60 years old and in no way reflects how the airline industry operates in the 21st Century.

“You’re talking about on-time reporting rules that date back to the days when almost all flights left one location and traveled directly to their destination,” Charles Leocha, president of Travelers United, told The Well News.

He went on to explain that because trips in the 1950s were so generally uncomplicated, the antiquated system allows airlines to report any arrival within 14 minutes and 59 seconds of its scheduled arrival as being on time.

Unfortunately, in today’s travel world journeys are designed around “hubs” and over 70 percent of trips entail needing to connect to one or more flights before reaching one’s final destination.

Even if a traveler accepts being 15 minutes late is considered “on time” — something a majority of passengers disagree with, Leocha said — other, unaccounted for time stealers might make reaching one’s connection nearly impossible.

“These days, airlines are doing everything they can to get ever more people on board, squeezing the seats and taking other steps to take away personal space,” he explained.

“When you compound the increase in passengers with the fact that more people are bringing on carry-on luggage because they don’t want to pay extra to check their bags, it can take you 10 or 15 minutes to get off the plane — especially if your seat is in the last third of the aircraft,” he said.

And when one considers that 87 percent of Americans fly only once a year and are therefore unfamiliar with airport terminals and how to get around them, he said, you’re talking about experiencing a worst-case scenario nearly every time you travel.

Leocha worked as a travel writer and journalist for over two decades when, due to an interest in traveler’s rights, he suddenly found himself a much-in-demand guest on radio and television.

“Any time there was a new regulation or something, they would have me on,” he said.

After an 18-month stint on MSNBC as its weekend “travel guru,” Leocha said he was approached by people in the travel industry who said there was a real need for an advocacy group for the traveling public.

Intrigued by the idea, he began to look around and discovered that most of the consumer organizations that existed in Washington at the time didn’t focus on travel or prioritize advocating for the traveling public in the halls of Congress or the Transportation Department.

“I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’ll go ahead and start one.'”

One of Travelers United’s early successes was getting the DOT to impose the “24-hour rule” that ensures a customer who books a non-refundable ticket from an airline at least seven days ahead of the scheduled departure can cancel or change that ticket free of charge within 24 hours of booking.

Next came the Full Fare Advertising rule which mandates that whenever a carrier or their ticket agent states a price for air transportation, the full price be stated, and that was followed by the group securing a dramatic increase in the compensation a passenger could receive for damaged and delayed luggage.

Now Leocha is calling on the Department of Transportation to provide air travelers with truly meaningful information regarding on-time arrivals they can use when planning their trips.

Toward that end, he’s asking the department to clearly explain to passengers what its current definition of an on-time arrival is — being up to nearly 15 minutes late — and for it to provide consumers with a searchable database of actual arrival times across airlines, and to require online travel agencies to disclose on-time arrival statistics to their customers.

“The data collection is already taking place,” he said. “It should be easy to provide consumers with accurate arrival-time information at a minimal cost,” Leocha said.

But these aren’t the easiest of times to get anything done in Washington.

“We’ve got partners on the Hill, but in such a politically divisive time, it takes a lot more explanation and talking to reach a bipartisan consensus,” Leocha said.

And then there are the headwinds buffeting the proposal, he said.

Despite the fact they fly all the time, Leocha said many lawmakers don’t see erroneous reporting of arrival times as a big problem, and therefore aren’t pushing.

Then there are the airlines, who would likely see their supposed on-time arrivals plummet if meaningful statistics were gathered and made public.

“So they don’t want it to happen, even if their goal is actually always to aim for on-time or even early arrivals,” Leocha said.

Though he doesn’t believe he’ll get everything he wants in the near term, Leocha said he’s hopeful a new system will be in place as early as the middle of next year that will at least allow consumers to see what the actual time of arrivals are.

In the meantime, Leocha’s wish list continued to grow. Once Congress and the DOT addresses on on-time arrival statistics dilemma, the consumer advocate would like the government’s reporting to be more upfront about late arrivals.

“Under the current system, once a plane is 15 minutes late, it’s considered late and that’s it. The reporting never tells you how late the flight actually was.

“So ask yourself, if you are a consumer, would you rather be on a flight that’s consistently 20 or 25 minutes late, or would you want to be on a flight that’s an hour late?

“What we’re trying to do is, first, get the on-time arrival statistics correct, and then we’re asking them to expand them with this additional data on flights that are consistently 30 minutes late, 45 minutes late and so on. I think consumers would find that very helpful,” Leocha concluded.

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