From the Wall Street Journal:
Your airline seat may not have much padding, but the airline's schedule sure does.
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.
Across the airline industry, carriers have been adding minutes to "block times"—the scheduled durations—baking delays into trips so that late flights officially arrive "on-time" and operations run better because flights pull into gates more often on schedule. Even though the recession has led airlines to cut flights and reduce congestion at many airports and in the skies, the move to pump up schedules has continued: Last year, most airlines added padding to scores of flights...
I certainly understand why airlines choose to pad their schedule: it improves their on-time performance and likely wins customers when the pilot proudly boasts that the the flight is arriving 20 minutes early.
But there are downsides to this policy, both to the airline and to travelers. First, the padded schedules often lead to more aircraft ground time--during which airlines are not making money on the plane. Second, the padding may impede the ability of travelers to book connections that they likely would easily make if not for the padding.
For example, my Chicago - San Francisco flight last Saturday had a scheduled flight time of 4 hours, 56 minutes. We ended up arriving in San Francisco 45 minutes early. Now I am aware that headwinds change constantly, but consider today's schedule for example:
I don't know about you, but this is the way all my flights have been lately, whether I am traveling east or west. I could commend UA for the early arrivals, but are they really early?
I do commend airlines for finding a clever way to mask their chronically delayed routes.