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Plane truth about punctuality

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaIf time is money why are so many flights late? How airlines toy with flight timings to keep you perpetually mystified.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Still waiting to take off? Asia's busiest flight routes

Are you still waiting to take off?

WE LIVE in a business climate where time is money. In cities like Hong Kong where people avoid eye contact to save nanoseconds on irksome acknowledgement and the door-close buttons on lifts are rubbed off with urgent use, calculating the chances of your flight being on time can be a major preoccupation. My apartment neighbours pale at the prospect of a conversation with an Indian journalist who loves nothing more than tossing out dangerous time-wasting bait with cheery hellos though in their favour it must be said some now manage a weary smile and are perhaps the better for it.

So how do flight timings and punctuality stack up in Asia? The UK-based air travel analytics group OAG (Official Airline Guide) has been at it for ages since 1929 – currently processing 'more than 57 million records of flight status updates per year' – so it should know. Asia is home to several of the Top 20 busiest airline routes according to OAG, which listed Hong Kong-Taipei No.1 for traffic (flight frequencies) in 2017. The average on-time performance on this route is listed as 70.92% with Hong Kong Airlines producing an 88.9% on-time record followed by Cathay Pacific (79.9%) and the hapless China Airlines trailing at 52.4%.

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It is worth noting that all reporting is based on airline and airport records so some leeway is to be assumed especially with on-time departures/arrivals margins for flights upped surreptitiously from 15 to 30 minutes or more and some quibbling over whether they report chocks-off time or actual take-off.

{Asia is home to several of the Top 20 busiest airline routes according to OAG, which listed Hong Kong-Taipei No.1 for traffic (flight frequencies) in 2017

The United States Department of Transportation lists on-time as gate departure or arrival within 15 minutes of the computerised reservation system (CRS) time. Yet airline tickets these days universally insist on 'schedule padding' or adding additional minutes (even hours) on the journey time. So a flight of say five hours HK-Delhi may be shown as over six hours on the ticket. The UK's The Telegraph wrote after reviewing the findings of an OAG report, "For the hop from Heathrow to JFK, a few airlines back in 1996 allowed less than 7 hours 30 mins for the journey... Now, some opt for 8 hours 30 mins or more." The excitement of early arrival is one of the biggest cons for flyers today.

The No.2 most heavily travelled air route worldwide is Kuala Lumpur-Singapore with a 78.52% on-time performance with Scoot leading the pack (90.5% flights on time), followed by Jetstar Asia (86.7%) and Singapore Airlines (83.5%). OAG ranks Jakarta-Singapore No.3 with an on-time performance of 77.38% and Batik Air leading the list with a 90.3% on-time statistic. Jakarta-KL (64.84%) ranks No.4 with HK-Shanghai in No.5 spot with a dreadful 57.79% on-time record. Again, leading the charge to Shanghai is Hong Kong Airlines with an astonishing 84.9% on-time reporting compared with Cathay Dragon (53.3%) and Cathay Pacific's 49.1%.

Interestingly, the highest scores for on-time performance on OAG's Top 20 are Dubai-Kuwait (83.55%) and Dubai-London (82.56%) with New York-Toronto at the bottom with 54.24%.

Which airport is likely to see you off on time? Among mega airports with over 30m 'departing seats per annum' Tokyo Haneda (which also gets passengers in and out of town a lot quicker than Narita) scored an impressive 86.75%. Madrid ranked second with Atlanta third. From Asia, Singapore's Changi placed fifth (80.57%), Bangkok 16th (70.77%), Delhi 18th (70.05%), Hong Kong 19th (67.92%) and popular Seoul Incheon 20th (66.96%).
Yet with all the hurly-burly of getting flights off on time, airlines love nothing more than passengers who dawdle in duty-free, restaurants and day spas. The more the glitz the greater the expected spend – and, of course, delayed flights chip in too. While Hong Kong International Airport has added a small midfield concourse with 20 gates (mainly used by Hong Kong Airlines) Singapore Changi Airport has unveiled its new Terminal 4 winning kudos yet again as the No.1 Airport Worldwide on our 2018 Best in Travel reader poll. Hamad International Airport Doha ranks No.2 with Incheon International Airport No.3, Haneda (Tokyo) No.4 and HK dropping to No.5.

Munich, regularly among Europe's most favoured airports weighs in at a creditable No.6 on our reader poll punching well above its weight with a slew of 60 restaurants and 150 shops spread over 43,000sq m, a Kinderland and a Visitors Park for kids, free WiFi, carbon offset purchases for travellers with a view to achieving 'climate neutral operations by 2030', and imaginative event space and real estate options to lure business to the airport. If that's not enough there's even an inhouse microbrewery, Airbräu, which does eight kinds of beer. An interesting aspect of this campus unbeknownst to passengers is its large anti cybercrime department that 'fights thousands of daily cyberattacks.' Whether the system can detect or stop a compulsively chatty Indian journalist remains to be seen.

As you plan your travels do check your ticketed flight time against the actual flying time. There are lessons to be learned and eyebrows to be raised.

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