For Jeffrey Winiarz, the only thing worse than a late arrival is an early one. Like the recent flight from Kansas City to Chicago's frenetic O'Hare International Airport, which touched down a full half-hour before its scheduled arrival time.
As his plane taxied toward the terminal, the captain welcomed passengers to the Windy City with "good news ... and bad news." They were early, but there was no available gate. The plane rolled to a stop in a part of the airport called the penalty box, while flight attendants tried to convince impatient passengers that they'd be pulling up to the gate any minute.
"No one was buying it," remembers Winiarz, a technology consultant based in Atlanta. "They had plenty of open gates at the airport, and weather wasn't a factor. They should have been operating normally."
As the airline industry toasts its latest on-time arrival record -- 79.1% of flights in April arrived on schedule, up just a fraction from the previous month and about one percentage point higher than a year ago -- no one seems to be paying much attention to the price we pay for this improvement.
It's true that one reason for the uptick in on-time arrivals is that there are fewer flights and therefore less air traffic to get stuck in. But airlines have also given themselves more time, which is often referred to as "padding" their schedules. They've added anywhere between five minutes to more than half an hour to some of their domestic flights since deregulation, in order to keep up their on-time ratings.
Back in 1979, for example, the average scheduled flight time from New York to Los Angeles was 339 minutes, according to OAG. This year, it takes an additional 41 minutes to travel the same distance, an increase of nearly 11%. The scheduled flying time from Chicago to Houston is up almost 18% in the same time period, while the average flight from Miami to Boston takes 26 extra minutes than it did three decades ago, an increase of almost 14%.
But there's an obvious downside to these scheduling shenanigans: When flights arrive too early, they can spend a considerable amount of time in the penalty box. It took Winiarz's flight nearly an hour before a gate opened up. "We spent more time on the ground in Chicago than in the air," he says.
Average "taxi-in" times have fluctuated between a low of about 5-1/2 minutes in 1995 to a high of nearly 8 minutes in 2004. For the first four months of 2009, the average plane took just under 7 minutes from wheels-down to the gate, according to the Transportation Department.
But some planes spend far longer on the tarmac. For example, American Eagle flight 4325 from Charlotte to Chicago, waited 2-1/2 hours for a gate on April 5. Two other American Eagle flights idled for more than two hours on the tarmac in Chicago. American had three of the five most-delayed flights in April on a taxi-in basis, according to the government, while Continental Airlines had two.
Why did these flights take forever to get to the gate? Airlines fault the weather. "It was a freak late-season snowstorm," says American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said "severe weather" was to blame for her airline's taxi-in delays, adding that aircraft being held at the gate meant the incoming planes had nowhere to go.
Airlines would rather publish realistic flight times and use their gates as efficiently as possible, but aviation analyst Michael Miller suggests pressure from customers is behind the schedule inflation. "Airlines have gotten so much bad press about being late that they've added time to their schedules," he told me. "When a flight arrives early, it makes them look better. But if you land too early, and you're not expected, you have to wait."
Can you avoid a long taxi-in time? Perhaps. Here are a few tips.
1. Think Alternate
Smaller, alternate airports, such as Chicago's Midway Airport or Ontario International Airport in Southern California, aren't as busy and far less likely to send dozens of aircraft to the penalty box. At least that's the experience of Andy Simpson, an attorney who lives in Christiansted, St. Croix. When he flies to Miami, "I groan when I hear we are early, because it inevitably leads to a longer delay than if we arrived on time," he says. But the other way around? No problem.
2. Fly Early
The first flight of the day is less likely to experience a taxi-in delay, according to Miller, the aviation consultant. If yours is the first flight of the day to arrive, chances are there won't be another plane competing for the same gate. "There are a lot of things that could happen during the day," he says, adding that a safe bet for a delay would be the last flight of the day between two busy airports. Avoid those if at all possible.
3. Bigger is Better
Smaller aircraft tend to get held in the penalty box more often than larger planes, according to recent statistics and several passengers with whom I spoke for this story. For example, three of the most-delayed flights for April were on American Eagle, a regional carrier. It makes sense that air traffic controllers wouldn't want to keep a Boeing 747 waiting for an hour. You can avoid regional jets by paying attention to the airline when you're booking. The wording "operated by" followed by a regional airline like American Eagle, means you're on a little plane.
4. Avoid Bad Weather
If you're flying into South Florida during a summer afternoon, you're practically guaranteed a close encounter with a thunderstorm. Headed to Montana in January? Look out for blizzards. Flying into San Francisco or Juneau, Alaska? At certain times of year, mind the fog. Bad weather isn't the sole cause of taxi-in delays, of course, but the most extreme taxi-in troubles are often tied to storms and other meteorological disturbances, some of which are predictable.
By flying into a small airport on a big plane, avoiding peak travel times and predictably bad weather, you can minimize your chance of getting stuck on the ground. But you can't avoid it entirely.
Andrew Hetzel, a beverage consultant based in Hawaii, says the trick is to set realistic expectations when you arrive early.
"Invariably, the crew will make some premature, boastful announcement about being proud to arrive 20 minutes early," he says. "Experienced travelers roll their eyes, knowing what is about to come next from the cabin: 'Sigh. Well folks, it looks like there's another plane at our gate, it will just be a few minutes until we can park.' "
And that's the trick: When your flight attendant says you've arrived early, you might want to wait until you're exiting the aircraft before saying, "Thank you."
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of "What You Get For The Money: Vacations" on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c) 2009 Christopher Elliott. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.