Airline scheduling: Hurry up and wait, or run like crazy?

Departure_And_Arrival_Board_At_Dulles_Airport_(4128589658).jpg AlbertHerring-001

Have you ever stopped to wonder, while planning a trip, how your airline’s schedule was planned? Especially when it seems you’re about to be condemned to a headlong half-marathon across the airport to a flight that leaves all-too-soon, or when you find yourself looking at a l-o-o-o-n-g afternoon or evening in a not-that-comfortable chair?

 

You might not realize that sorting all that out is not only far from random; it’s actually the subject of courses at top colleges and universities and endless study and planning by the airlines. And far from being a settled science, the winds of trade and circumstance, not to mention the winds of nature, keep shifting it around.

 

Gumbo’s wondered about it for a long time (especially while waiting through long layovers) and has done a little research to try and explain some of what’s going on. But of course, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. This is about the U.S., but many of the issues apply in Europe and elsewhere.

 

Let’s start with a little history. Before 1978, the airline industry was highly-regulated, with the goal of maintaining a stable and extensive transportation system. The Federal government  had to approve airlines starting new routes, and could deny an airline a route it thought had too many competitors. The result was that most airlines made money, it was hard for anyone new to get into the business, and in quite a  few cases you “couldn’t get there from here” without switching airlines.

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People Express was (for a time) a real high-flyer among the post-deregulation newbies

 

After deregulation, new airlines popped up, serving whatever routes made sense to them…remember People Express?  Some concentrated on a single route; some worked by flying passengers from a circle of cities to a home base and then back out to another point on the circle. People Express and Southwest are examples of airlines that did that. Flying from Boston to Los Angeles on People Express, for instance, meant changing planes in Newark.

Ironically, despite the effects that deregulation has had on scheduling, in the end it has resulted in fewer, not more, competing airlines.

 

But the hub-and-spoke system spread to the legacy airlines as well. A system like that requires careful scheduling to avoid long layovers; the cheap fares on some of the new carriers were not cheap enough to be attractive if they added hours to a trip. Airline schedulers became expert at planning coordination. Put that Newark to LA flight at 11, and match it with incoming flights from Buffalo, Boston, Charlotte arriving between 9:30 and 10:30, and it works. Move the LA flight half an hour in either direction and it doesn’t.

 

That practice, of clustering flights close together at several points during the day, came to be known as “banking” flights, and it became a widespread pattern for a number of years, but it had its cost. To move everyone through the airport in time and with their baggage transferred isn’t cheap. To do it for many flights at once takes more staff, more gates, more everything. While airfares generally fell a bit—one of the goals of deregulation—they didn’t fall as much as they might have without those costs.Ronald_Reagan_National_Airport_Concourse_.jpg Fletcher6-001

Another issue for banked scheduling: l-o-o-n-g concourses between gates on short connections

 

But, at the time, the airlines felt those costs could be absorbed, passenger traffic tripled, and at least some of the new airlines were successful. Some, and some of the legacy carriers, though, didn’t make it. Then came September 11. Weeks of curtailed flights, heavy and costly security measures and a general drop in passengers for a while. Airlines made huge adjustments, laying off staff, mothballing planes and cancelling flights and routes to save money.

 

That meant spreading the load over remaining staff, and banking fell out of favor. And as airlines also reduced schedules to fill planes more fully, banking seemed less necessary. The process of spreading out the arrivals and departures is called “de-peaking,” by those who study it. It has the effect of reducing cost—but at airports where competitors fly the same routes, it can reduce revenue when passengers find someone else has a more convenient connection.

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Banking flights can lead to very crowded airport spaces

 

Recently, as major airlines have dwindled down to a precious few—the Big 3 plus Southwest and JetBlue—banking has begun something of a revival. The whole issue mainly affects these large airlines, because the smaller rivals such as Allegiant, Spirit, etc. don’t have the extensive route maps that make hub-and-spoke work.

To be honest, I’d never thought seriously about airline scheduling, other than noticing such obvious things as most trans-Atlantic flights from the East Coast leaving in the evening for morning arrival in Europe. The rest was a mystery until last fall when the Wall Street Journal ran an ARTICLE pointing out that, at Miami, “American Airlines is making its hub here more hectic—on purpose.”

 

The article gave a good example of the effect, pointing out that under the old schedule, a flight from Columbus, OH to Miami could connect with 20 possible on-bound flights; after the new schedules took effect on August 19, that flight has good connections to 45 on-bounds. And that means more business for that Columbus flight, as well as for the continuing legs. It had better mean more business: American hired over 200 additional ground workers and added equipment to handle the load.

 

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Crowded schedules mean crowded fields, as above, and more staff needed to keep them moving.

 

The Miami effect, as reported by WSJ, results in 42 flights between 9 and 10 am, then almost nothing for an hour. Then another bank of 40 or so—and the process repeats 10 times a day.

 

American seems to be taking the lead in this, and part of that results from their need to rationalize schedules anyway as the American/USAir merger moves toward completion. But they’re not the only one; Delta and United are also re-banking at a number of their hubs. American is also planning to “re-peak” Chicago and its main hub at Dallas/Fort Worth in coming months. Delta is banked at Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City; United says most of its hubs (including Chicago) are banked.

 

So, what are the pluses and minuses? Obviously the airlines expect to benefit—or they wouldn’t do it. Airport concession operators, in the articles I’ve seen, have mixed feelings. Some report losing business as people spend less time; others say they’re selling as much but have to be prepared to serve and pack more quickly.

 

But for us passengers? Awfully hard to say. I know I’ve personally paid extra for non-stop flights to avoid long waits; I might benefit from a fast connection at a lower price. But if that fast connection requires me to sprint down some of those extremely long corridors…not so much. Let’s watch a while and see if banking will continue to peak, or whether we’ll see a period of de-peaking again.

 

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Fascinating piece, PHeymont.  And I've noticed how tight they are making these connections.  For example, in Europe we had connections scheduled 50 minutes from the plane's landing, assuming it was on time.  We were definitely running, and it seemed everyone else at Schipol was as well.  We made the connection, but I'd rather have an extra hour for a more relaxed transfer.  I'm like you -- book a direct flight if possible, even with a premium, and look carefully at where and how long those connections are.

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

very informative and useful article, PHeymont. Yes, I can relate with most of this, especially trying to  make connections with only minutes to spare. We've now taken to seeking alternative forms of transport like trains and buses just to avoid airports!

The journey starts with you. Just open that door and start walking!

 

Of course the king of "Banking" for years has been Icelandic Air. They have made their whole business plan around bringing planes from 10 different North American cities in the morning and having those same planes fly out to 10 different European cities 1-2 hours after landing. This allows 10 plane loads of passengers the ability to mix and match origins and destinations. Then in the afternoon they do the reverse run. For 2-4 hours a day the terminal is full as passengers switch planes, the rest of the day it is pretty empty.

Thanks for reminding me of that, Jonathan...since it's where I first noticed it. It's actually so bunched that most of the terminal employees work two short shifts a day, with a gap between.

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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