Flight Delays Worse than Stats Reveal

Numbers, bad as they are, often hide the actual impact on passengers.

Aug. 11, 2007 — -- On a recent Continental Airlines flight to Minneapolis, Pete Burkholder and his wife were stranded on a Newark Airport runway for eight hours.

"As you're sitting there, you keep thinking, 'This has got to end,'" said Burkholder. "And one hour passes, and another, and it's really almost like 'The Twilight Zone.'"

The air traffic control delay even angered the pilot.

"By the end, he was saying such things as, 'This is horrible, this is inexcusable, people are lying to us,'" said Burkholder. "I think he was really trying to keep himself from just all out swearing."

The eight-hour wait was never officially reported to the Department of Transportation, which releases monthly numbers on flight delays.

The DOT requires airlines to report delays, but not if the flight is canceled, which is what eventually happened with the Burkholders.

"Those were some long hours, and they don't count for anything," said Burkholder's wife Martha, who missed a friend's bachelorette party because of the delay.

This summer is shaping up to be the worst ever for delays, but the dismal numbers don't tell the whole story, because they measure late planes, not late passengers.

For instance, if you arrive three hours late and miss a connection, it can take hours or days to re-book another flight because planes are flying nearly full this summer. But officially, the only delay that's reported is the initial, three-hour-late arrival.

The same rule applies if your plane is diverted to another city. It's counted solely as a diversion, and the subsequent delay goes unreported.

"It's clearly a case where the passenger perception differs markedly from the statistics," said airline analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann & Co.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is currently updating a 2000 study which found the average delay was, in fact, 66-percent longer than the official DOT number when cancellations, diversions, and missed connections were factored into the equation.

"For every 20 reported delays, there's probably at least one more delay that goes unrecorded," said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com.

Delays are also lessened or erased as airlines lengthen the scheduled times for flights.

For instance, in 1987, the median scheduled flight time from Los Angeles to New York's J.F.K airport was exactly five hours, according to BACK Aviation Solutions, which compiles data about the airline industry. By 1997, that same flight had grown to five hours, 15 minutes. Now, the median scheduled flight time is five hours, 35 minutes.

"I'm assuming the airlines are building in that time so that consumers will be pleasantly surprised when they arrive on time," said Chicago frequent flyer Enna Allen.

The airline industry acknowledges its flight delay numbers are not completely accurate but says it's merely following established rules and not trying to manipulate its on-time report card. The Air Transport Association, in fact, says it recently recommended to the DOT that changes be made in the way the numbers are crunched.

"No one wants to see more accurate reporting than us," said ATA spokesman David Castelveter.

But others say the airlines deserve some of the blame.

"The airlines are certainly complicit in the underreporting," said Winship. "But at the end of the day, the standard for the reporting comes from the DOT."

It's been two months, but the Burkholders are still upset about their nightmare flight.

"Oh, it enrages me," said Martha. "Seems like the airlines should be held accountable for how long they make people wait even if a flight is canceled."

For their trouble, the Burkholders received two 25-dollar vouchers, three dollars for every agonizing hour they unofficially endured.