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Lately I’ve had the strangest feeling

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaFlights into the Twilight Zone. How passengers are being taken for a ride by inefficient airlines and airports.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Cathay B747 roars over buildings landing at Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong's old gateway

Cathay B747 executing a laundry-grazing touchdown at Hong Kong's Kai Tak. Airports have expanded, aircraft are state-of-the-art, but flights are inordinately delayed. Why?

ANY LABOURING swain nervously awaiting his date for that hotel lobby assignation will have marvelled at the time-keeping skills of women so adept at making their man hang on till that very last point when – all energy, pride, confidence, irritation and hope drained – he looks up to see her glide in, the picture of innocent radiance. Gone are the admonitions. Out come the drooping flowers. ‘Oh, have you been waiting? Just 45 minutes! That’s not too late is it?’ Well, that’s the question. How late is late? Men are dismal with timings as well. They are called slobs. Executives who are habitually late are later referred to as ‘unemployed’. Women sail through unscathed.

What about aeroplanes? As any frequent flyer will have noticed, timings are being incessantly put back. You may be on a one-hour-fifty-minute flight from Hong Kong to Manila that departs 40 minutes late yet miraculously arrives early, a mathematical impossibility. Maybe this is the marvel of technology. Maybe it’s these new fangled jets. I suspect it’s because we travellers refer to planes in the feminine gender.

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Thirty years ago an on-time flight was one that took off or landed within 15 minutes of its scheduled time, plain and simple. Airline accountants – and nerds – might have preferred the chocks-off time as the aircraft was pushed back. Fast turnarounds are the lifeblood of regional airlines that need to maximise an aircraft’s in-air time. An idle plane equals revenue lost.

{Padded flight times are neither smart nor workable and point to growing acceptance of sloppy standards as airlines get comfortable with flight schedule quackery...

So why are planes flying later and later these days while the technology to ensure fast turnarounds, quicker embarkation and deplaning and baggage handling, has grown exponentially?

In China, the issue is straightforward if frustrating. A paltry 30 percent of the airspace is available for commercial planes whereas in America by comparison, as much as 80 percent may be free (enabling several flight corridors at any given time for commercial and private jets). Much of Chinese airspace is controlled by the military. As a result, aircraft can be inordinately delayed in cities like Beijing and Shanghai with a serious knock-on effect on connecting flights at hub airports like Hong Kong.

Our skies are getting ever more crowded and airports are running out of landing and take-off slots. Yet even with the huge pressure on runways and congestion in the skies, airlines like India’s IndiGo manage on-time performance (OTP) rates of 80 percent or higher. The Official Airline Guide (OAG) regularly ranks the Japanese carriers Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways as top performers, perhaps unsurprising in a country where watches can be set by the arrival or departure of a shinkansen bullet train.

A 2019 OAG report ‘Defining Late’ looks at the validity of the unofficial 15-minute punctuality rule. It notes, some feel “… a move to a longer standard for OTP – perhaps 30 minutes – may feel appropriate,” though it cautions that this fails to cater for connecting flights.

While it is true that departure delays on long-haul flights often do not translate into late arrivals, as aircraft make up time en route, this is not true of shorter regional flights where a small delay will compound as the airline continues its later and later turnarounds through the day. This brings OAG’s focus to the ‘first wave of flights’ or the morning departures, whose on-time performance hugely impacts following services. Perhaps punctuality standards could be set higher for these flights?

Yet, there are other players involved – ubercool travellers who swan into the airport 45 minutes before their flight leaving no wiggle room for immigration and customs; crowded airports struggling with their passenger flow charts, labour strikes and inclement weather; and of course the airlines themselves, which have varying standards of regulation and professionalism. Late connecting flights are problematic as airlines often hold back departures to gather traffic if loads are lean. And politics can enter into it too as when Qatar is denied access to UAE airspace or Pakistan blocks Indian overflights necessitating longer flight times.

A growing issue, however, is the ‘institutionalisation’ of endemic delays with hugely padded flight times. Just check the in-fight magazine’s route timings with your own ticket stub and you’ll spot the discrepancy.

Padded flight times are neither smart nor workable and their usage points to a growing acceptance of sloppy standards with the result that airports stop striving to get things back on track while airlines get comfortable with flight schedule quackery. The travel industry must reclaim and set professional standards. Passengers – especially frequent flyers enlisted with loyalty programmes – must manifest their disapproval with airline legerdemain that freely substitutes ‘flight time’ for ‘waiting time.’ Passengers cannot be penalised for airline and airport inefficiency.

On several near-monopoly routes demand is inelastic regardless of delays as passengers are unwilling to give up the ‘convenience’ of a preferred carrier. And travellers have to get from A to B. Yet, in many instances, passengers can vote with their wallets. Airlines know this. So make your voice heard. Gone are the insouciant days when in countries like India flights, like buses, set off as soon as seats were filled. Shocked latecomers were simply told, ‘Sorry sir, your flight was preponed.’ Pacific island hopping flights often do the same. Imagine that happening with a legacy airline today. But you might fancy your on-time chances flying JAL or ANA (both rigorously punctual) to an airport like Tokyo’s Haneda (ranked No.1 among worldwide mega airports by OAG in 2018) with an 86.75 percent on-time record. If flights across Japan’s crowded skies can be on time so can flights across Asia.

It makes no sense for airports to squeeze in ever more flights (and bigger aircraft) without extra runways and terminal capacity and then wring their hands at the unmanageable mess they’ve created. If irate passengers aim their ire at airports it is often because many of these architectural icons have far exceeded their capacity.

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has a passenger capacity of 45 million but already handles 60m and could be stretched to 100m over the next decade. The superefficient Hong Kong International Airport handles over 72m passengers annually. These vastly overstretched airports as with others across Asia are ramping up expansions. Singapore seems to have got it right with its four terminals and more planned.

It is time for airlines and airports to end endemic inefficiency, fix the issues, and stop pulling wool over customers’ eyes. And it is time for passengers to say ‘Enough’.

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