Thursday, February 4, 2010

For Flights, On Time Is the New Late

There was a good piece today in the Wall Street Journal about how listed flight times have increased at several airlines:
Delta Air Lines Flight 715 from New York to Los Angeles now takes more than seven hours to fly across the country, according to the airline's March schedule. That's an hour longer than the same flight in the same type of aircraft took in 1996. A Phoenix-Las Vegas flight at Southwest Airlines that used to be scheduled at 60 minutes now gets 80 minutes. What was once a two-hour American Airlines trip from Chicago to Newark, N.J., now is two-and-a-half hours, according to the airline's schedule.
This is a good example of anchoring, in which a company gives a customer a reference point to feel good about. When you see a shirt that you might want to buy, you aren't always sure how much the store is going to charge. If the store tells you it's usually $10 but today the shirt is on a 20% discount, you're more likely to buy than if you found the same shirt for a list price of $8.

Similarly, airlines have an incentive to call most flights "on time" or "early," even if they've made no real improvements. Many people grade airlines based on on-time performance, and what easier way to improve than by changing the definition of "on time"? Fliers often shop around for the best ticket prices, but rarely do they compare listed flight times on different airlines (at least on nonstop flights).

Once you accept the anchor time, getting there early might be a minor inconvenience; you could have made better plans had you known. But arrive an hour after the airline promised, and you're bound to be mad; it feels like the airline robbed you of an hour of time with your friends, or sleep, or whatever else.

Of course, such a move does not come without a cost:
Adding minutes in large quantities can mean an airline can't fly the same number of flights each day without adding airplanes to its fleet or giving up spare aircraft held in reserve for when mechanical problems arise. In addition, most airlines pay crews the greater of the actual time of a trip or the scheduled time. Increasing the scheduled time adds labor costs.
But this seems a small price to pay to create a perception of being on time or early more often than not.


Josh Hattersley said...

What you call "anchoring" I call "covering one's ass" :-P