On-time performance has traditionally been a key factor in consumers’ airline booking choices. But with so many other metrics that denote reliability and success for carriers there’s a lot about OTP that remains misunderstood. 

Furthermore, as other factors influence fliers’ airline choices – e.g., cleanliness and hygiene regimens, the promise of middle seat vacancies – OTP will likely take on additional importance. As the Covid-19 crisis continues, OTP can be viewed as a measure of demand recovery and airlines’ ability to manage new travel expectations related to the novel coronavirus. 

A flight is considered "on time" if it departs or arrives within 15 minutes of the scheduled time shown in the carriers' Computerized Reservations Systems (CRS), according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, which is the section of the Department of Transportation which has been tracking OTP since 1987. (It should go without saying that “arrival performance” is based on arrival at the gate, while “departure performance” is based on the departure from the gate.)

Beating The Clock

“It's funny, since it might seem counterintuitive to a lot of people that your flight can actually be 14 minutes late and still considered on time, but that's true in the aviation business,” notes Chris Anthony, co-founder of Kambr Inc. and head of its Advisory unit [Full Disclosure: Kambr Media and Kambr Advisory are independent units operating under Kambr Inc.]. 

A BTS rep tells Kambr Media that the 15-minute cut-off was instituted in 1995, when it was able to gather “true comparable” data for OTP from airlines with a uniform standard that allowed for the typical exigencies that hold up air traffic daily. Before that year, the various reporting methodologies that individual airlines used made OTP less exact. 

Since the advent of online booking and metasearch travel sites, OTP has emerged as a key differentiator among carriers seeking to compete beyond just price.

“The reason it's important is there's been a lot of evidence that shows that people actually make purchase decisions, based on on-time performance,” Anthony says. “It's one of the reasons you will see that metric is displayed in travel agent GDS booking systems. You'll see it sometimes incorporated in reliability scores and meta-searches on sites like Kayak. Airlines even put it on their own websites to build trust. No one wants to depart or arrive late, right?” 

While that all works toward airlines preserving a positive image, having poor OTP can work against carriers. If a carriers’ flights have demonstrated a string of late flights, the government can cite the airline. Plus, lateness drives complaints across meta-search engines and social media. And in Europe, passengers can apply for compensation when a flight is delayed (typically €250 and €600,  or $281 and $676, per person).

Ultimately, the negative marks on lateness impact revenue. 

Of course, airlines have sometimes taken measures to thwart citations for lateness.

“Airlines would do things such as ‘schedule padding,’” Anthony says. “For example, they might block time between two cities that are two hours from one airport to another. When you put your schedule in, you schedule it as two hours and 10 minutes – that gives you an extra 10 minutes. So even if you're a little bit late, you're still likely to be on time.”

In terms of a baseline for determining what counts as “good” OTP, most people in the industry would accept that an on-time rate of 80% or above, suggests OAG, noting that translates to 4 in 5 flights arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. 

“The very best airlines and airports succeed in punctuality closer to 90% - but they remain the exception rather than the rule,” says OAG. “Going much beyond 80% of flights on-time will be easier for some than for others. Operating at congested airports and in congested airspace will make it harder. And as climate change begins to create more chaotic weather conditions, and storms in particular, keeping to schedule will be harder.”

Reaching an OTP well above 80 percent has generally come at a very high expense, OAG adds. In the past, attempting that near-perfection hasn’t been considered worthwhile from a cost-benefit analysis.

But the impact on demand, scheduling, and traveler expectations may have made the strenuous reach for higher OTP rates unnecessary.

OTP In The Time Of Covid-19

The ongoing effect of the novel coronavirus on commercial aviation travel has been volatile. Even as air travel demand has steadily returned, sudden cancelations and other schedule changes have become all too common.

While Covid-19 pressures have forced airlines to maintain more vigorous hygiene and sanitization efforts, by reducing schedules, carriers have likely avoided any significant shock to OTP.  

As the BTS’ latest statistics show, in May 2020, carriers posted an on-time arrival rate of 89.1 percent, up from both the 55.1. percent on-time rate in April 2020 and the 77.9 percent rate in May 2019.  (For more details check out the BTS’ report, May Flights Hit Another Record Low.)

Highest Marketing Carrier On-Time Arrival Rates May 2020:

Spirit Airlines – 96.8 percent

Hawaiian Airlines Network – 96.0 percent

Frontier Airlines – 93.9 percent

 Lowest Marketing Carrier On-Time Arrival Rates May 2020 

Allegiant Air – 37.4 percent

JetBlue Airways – 86.4 percent

Alaska Airlines Network – 90.6 percent

As the BTS notes, one reason airlines were able to operate a relatively normal percentage of their scheduled flights in May is the record low number of flights they scheduled for the month. On top of the 42 percent decline in the number of flights scheduled in April due to the virus, May's 192,412 scheduled flights represent a 73 percent year-over-year fall-off from May 2019.

“I think we'll continue to see on-time ratings for most airlines go up significantly,” Anthony says. “Less traffic means greater turn times between flights,” says Anthony. “Even though the required procedures to more deeply clean and disinfect the airplane between flights, the turn times, when a plane comes inbound, before it goes outbound again, those turn times have widened. So that there's more time to accomplish those tasks.”

This leads to fewer delays in boarding and landing (no more circling the airport waiting for the go-ahead to land).
“I can see it in my own anecdotal evidence too,” Anthony notes.” Not a single flight has been late in the 12 flights I've taken since June. Actually, the majority have been early.”

It’s a tiny bit of silver lining in this period of demand drops: airline operations, at least when it comes to maintaining OTP, are just less stressed. 

“When you're operating fewer flights, the gate agents aren't under so much pressure to get this one out because there's another plane coming in,” Anthony adds. “All of these things that really put strain on the operation and cause delays, there's just fewer of those strains in place.”