Airlines are Padding Their Scheduled Flight Times by More than 10%

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FinanceBuzz analyzed millions of flight records to find out how much extra time airlines are adding to flight schedules, which airports and airlines pad flight time the most, and more.
Updated May 31, 2023
Fact checked
airplane taking off from the airport

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What if there was a way for airlines to improve their on-time arrival stats without having to address any underlying issues that often cause flights to be delayed? What if airlines simply told passengers that flights take longer than they actually do?

Turns out, that’s exactly what airlines are doing. This practice, known as “schedule creep” or “flight padding,” is a standard tool airlines use to reduce their arrival delay statistics. And it’s happening more frequently than ever before.

The FinanceBuzz team analyzed government data on over 35 million flights, including some dating as far back as 2012, to see just how pervasive this practice is and how it’s changed over time. We identified what flight padding looks like across the industry, as well as which airlines and airports are fudging their flight times the most.

In this airline study

Key findings

  • On average, airlines are padding their scheduled flight times by just over 10%.
  • At 13%, Southwest Airlines adds the most padding time to its schedules of any airline. Hawaiian Airlines does it the least at 4.7%.
  • On a typical two-hour flight, airlines add approximately 11 minutes to their flight schedules to counteract delays. In 2012, they added only eight minutes, meaning padding time has increased by 27% in 10 years.
  • Even with this extra padding, more than 20% of flights were delayed in 2022. This number would have ballooned to more than 30% without the extra padding.
  • Flights out of Dallas, Charlotte, and Houston have the worst problems with airlines adding extra time to their flights. Over 16% of scheduled flight times are padded for flights from each of those cities.

How flights are typically scheduled

Chart breakdown of average flight time scheduling and how much of it is in air, ground time, or padding time added by airlines.


Of the more than five million domestic flights scheduled in 2022, the median scheduled flight duration was exactly 120 minutes (two hours). That 120 minutes includes:

  • 87 minutes actually in the air
  • 22 minutes on the ground (before takeoff or after landing)
  • 11 minutes of schedule padding added by airlines

Airlines add those extra 11 minutes of padding — 9.1% of the total scheduled flight time — to account for delays. And it works. Those 11 minutes prevent a higher percentage of flights from being categorized as delayed, even when they actually are.

There’s a range of padding times
On a typical flight, airlines are padding their scheduled flight time by 9.1%. But 31% of flights in the U.S. are scheduled for 110% or more than how long the flight actually takes. Only 6% are padded by more than 120%.

Because the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) defines a “delayed” flight as one that arrives more than 15 minutes after its originally scheduled time, these minutes can add up. Even with the extra time built in, more than 20% of flights were officially delayed in 2022. Without that extra padding time, the number of delayed flights balloons to more than 30%.

Padding time is also rising. While the typical flight schedule in 2022 included 11 minutes of padding, that number was just eight minutes in 2012. That’s a 27% jump in the last decade.

Padding is on the rise
Flight padding, or “schedule creep”, has increased more than 27% in the last 10 years.

Which airlines pad their flight times the most?

Airline Time in air Actual time Scheduled time Padding time % padding
Southwest Airlines 62 79 90 11 13.9%
Alaska Airlines 90 115 128 13 11.3%
United Airlines 102 128 141 13 10.2%
American Airlines 99 124 136 12 9.7%
Delta Airlines 84 106 116 10 9.4%
Jetblue Airlines 71 93 101 8 8.6%
Spirit Airlines 111 136 147 11 8.1%
Frontier Airlines 89 117 125 8 6.8%
Allegiant Air 83.5 109.5 116.5 7 6.4%
Hawaiian Airlines 26 43 45 2 4.7%

Southwest Airlines is the worst offender for artificially inflating its flight times. The median Southwest flight is scheduled for 90 minutes, with 11 of those minutes added for padding. That means that nearly 14% of Southwest’s scheduled flight times consist of extra padding.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Hawaiian Airlines adds just two minutes of padding on average, which equates to just 4.7% of its scheduled flight times. It is the only airline where less than 6% of flight times are padding.

Which airports have the worst padding problems?

Origin airport Time in air Actual time Scheduled time Padding time % padding
Dallas Love Field 43 58 70 12 20.7%
Charlotte Douglas International 42 66 77 11 16.7%
George Bush Intercontinental 43 68 79 11 16.2%
William P. Hobby 42 56 65 9 16.1%
San Francisco International 87 112 129 17 15.2%
Tampa International 64 84 95 11 13.1%
LaGuardia 110 140 158 18 12.9%
Harry Reid International 65 87 98 11 12.6%
Norman Y. Mineta San José International 58 76 85 9 11.8%
Portland International 32 53 59 6 11.3%
Phoenix Sky Harbor International 72 92 102 10 10.9%
Philadelphia International 96 119 132 13 10.9%
Ronald Reagan Washington National 67 93 103 10 10.8%
Los Angeles International 103 122 135 13 10.7%
Newark Liberty International 113 143 158 15 10.5%
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International 83 105 116 11 10.5%
Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall 84 105 116 11 10.5%
Chicago O'Hare International 101 126 139 13 10.3%
Logan International 70 93 102 9 9.7%
Sacramento International 62 83 91 8 9.6%
Minneapolis-St. Paul International 64 99 108 9 9.1%
Detroit Metro Wayne County 53 88 96 8 9.1%
Spokane International 46 68 74 6 8.8%
Seattle-Tacoma International 122 147 160 13 8.8%
San Diego International 61 80 87 7 8.8%
Salt Lake City International 71 93 101 8 8.6%
Kahului 23 37 40 3 8.1%
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International 88 111 120 9 8.1%
Dallas-Fort Worth International 110 136 146 10 7.4%
Orlando International 119 144 154 10 6.9%
Denver International 93 118 126 8 6.8%
Miami International 91 119 127 8 6.7%
John F. Kennedy International 329 361 382 21 5.8%
Hilo International 37 52 55 3 5.8%
Lihue 21 35 37 2 5.7%
Luis Muñoz Marin International 157 180 190 10 5.6%
Ellison Onizuka Kona International at Keahole 29 45 47 2 4.4%
Ted Stevens Anchorage International 177 200 207 7 3.5%
Daniel K Inouye International 28 45 46 1 2.2%

Among America’s 50 busiest airports, Dallas Love Field in Dallas, Texas, is the airport where departing flights are padded the most. The average flight out of that airport is scheduled to take 70 minutes but really takes 58 minutes, meaning that over 20% of the average scheduled flight time from that airport is padding.

Of note, Dallas Love Field is the birthplace and corporate headquarters of Southwest Airlines, the airline that adds the highest percentage of padding time to its flights. 95% of the flights from the Dallas Love Field are operated by Southwest

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the average flight out of Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Hawaii, has just one minute added to scheduled flight time on average, which represents just 2% of total scheduled flight time. Hawaiian Airlines, the least padded airline, represents 44% of all flights originating at that airport.

Advice from our Experts

R. Tolga Turgut, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor — College of Aeronautics

Florida Institute of Technology

What can passengers do when their flights are delayed?

Passengers can anticipate and strive to minimize potential delays to their flights, even in the planning phase, by making informed decisions.

There are online sources that can provide information to passengers on the likelihood of delays on airlines’ specific flights on specific days and times. Making informed decisions at the planning stage of travel would reduce the likelihood of delays. However, this is never a guarantee but a preventative or likelihood reduction measure.

When the actual delay happens, passengers can be vocal to the airline employees at the airport or on airline call centers.

I would say the best reaction the passengers can give is to punish that airline by not choosing them for their following flights if they can. In the airport, during the delay, they can be vocal with the airline representatives and seek assistance and guidance from them in a civil way. Simultaneously, they can put their experience in a complaint letter and send it to the airline and the Department of Transportation. Furthermore, social media can be considered if the airline is not responsive to the passenger complaints on delays.

What are some examples of how airlines might compensate a passenger on a delayed flight?

In Canada, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency, when a flight is delayed or canceled (including before the day of travel), an airline has minimum obligations to passengers that could include certain kinds of assistance, such as rebooking or refunds, and up to $1,000 in compensation for the inconvenience. Their obligations depend on whether the disruption is within the control of the airline, within the airline’s control but required for safety, or outside the airline’s control.

In European countries, there are similar measures for compensation driven by the duration of the delay and/or the disruption level of the delay or cancellation to the passenger’s travel plans. These compensations vary from providing refreshments at the airport to monetary compensations even above the value of the flight ticket for the passenger.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. there are no laws for similar compensations to help passengers. It directly depends on the individual airline’s company policies and approaches.

Examples of how airlines might compensate a passenger on a delayed flight would vary due to different business plans of airlines, such as network airlines (a.k.a. legacy, network, full-service carrier) vs. low-cost carriers (a.k.a. budget, ultra-low cost, and no frills). So, I do not think there would be one uniform measure or approach across the board.

Because these different business models entail different approaches to achieving brand loyalty. I would argue that network airlines in the U.S., such as American, Delta, United, and the leading low-cost carrier, Southwest, would approach this issue differently due to their large size. Some compensation forms depending on the delay duration of the flight and the disruption level may vary, from providing food and beverage vouchers on the airport premises to compensation that could go toward future flight plans of a passenger.

In long-delay cases (above five to six hours), free hotel accommodation, a new ticket for a future date, or a combination of both can be offered as well. It all should be driven by the reason for the delay, (i.e., weather vs. directly airline-related), length of delay, the haul of the delayed flight (short haul vs. long haul or even ultra-long haul) and the level of magnitude of disruption to the passenger’s plans.

Is schedule padding going to become more common?

The short answer is yes, at least for the immediate future, as the airlines are striving to recover from the negative impacts of the pandemic.

They have resource limitations, such as aircraft and pilots. So that means they will have to continue with schedule padding even if they know it is not the most efficient way. Schedule padding is developed over decades as airlines strive to operate with punctuality in the face of ever-increasing congestion, both in the air and on the ground.

We must also remember that airlines do not have the luxury of being early to their gates while managing many external factors to be on time as well. Some external factors that can affect on-time performance are air traffic, airport operations, and unexpected weather events. The padding allows them to mitigate those unforeseen circumstances.

If they stretch the padding duration too long then they would be truly manipulating their performance before the public. So, the passengers should pay attention to this. It is also more to the advantage of the airlines to focus on truly improving their operational efficiency and not rely on manipulated performance results via schedule padding as well.

Heather Gibson, Ph.D and Yeonseo Jo

Heather Gibson, Ph.D: Professor, Associate Director — Department of Tourism, Hospitality & Event Management

Yeonseo Jo: Korean Air flight attendant and Ph.D. student – College of Health & Human Performance

University of Florida

What rights do passengers have when their flights are delayed?

Policies related to airline delays for flights originating out of and landing in the U.S. are subject to the rules and policies of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Countries and regions vary in their policies. For example, in the EU, if a flight is delayed more than three hours, passengers are due compensation. In the U.S., policies vary by airline and often depend on individual situations. Overnight delays, or if delays are for several hours, may yield a food voucher or a hotel room. But there is no guarantee of this, particularly if the delay is not related to the airline, i.e., it is not their fault, such as weather or air traffic control delays.

How can travelers protect themselves from the consequences of flight delays?

The airline apps have made it easier for passengers to keep up with potential delays. Sometimes the messages on the apps are ahead of what they know at the gate. Besides purchasing travel insurance and reading the small print on the insurance policies, there really aren’t many — or any — strategies that passengers can use to protect themselves from delays.

If you hold elite status with a particular airline and it is their delay, the airline is more likely to start rebooking you if you are about to miss a connection. In December, this happened to me (Jo). I was delayed out of Florida and was about to miss my connection to London. Since I have medallion status with Delta, they had re-booked me before I even began to realize the ramifications of the delay. But this doesn’t cover any other costs you may have, such as missed bus connections in London or arriving late at your home airport and accruing additional parking costs. Sometimes an email to the airline might help after explaining what happened, and you may get a gift certificate or a credit for the airline. But again, this varies across airlines and, I suspect, whether you have elite status or not.

Roland Rust, Ph.D.

David Bruce Smith Chair in Marketing — Robert H. Smith School of Business

University of Maryland

What can passengers do when their flights are delayed?

First, the passenger must judge the probable length of the delay.

Some things to consider:

  1. Is the plane already at the gate?
  2. If not, is there a weather problem where the plane is coming from?
  3. Is the crew missing anyone?
  4. Is there a mechanical issue?

Negative answers to any of those three questions might indicate a longer delay. If the delay is likely to be lengthy, consider booking a different flight. Do that by phone because the local gate agent is likely to be swamped. The airline will typically wish to help you change flights.

What are some examples of how airlines might compensate a passenger on a delayed flight?

It depends on the length of the delay. If an additional overnight stay is required, the passenger can request that the airline pay for it if the delay is the airline's fault.

How can travelers protect themselves from the consequences of flight delays?

Try not to book short connection times.

Is schedule padding going to become more common?

Schedule padding is already typical. I am always amused when a pilot who has taken off late says, "We'll try to make up some time in the air." What is really going on is that the padding is enough to make up for the late take-off.

Chad Kendall

FAA Chief Instructor and Associate Professor — Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science

Metropolitan State University of Denver

What can passengers do when their flights are delayed?

Be a proactive passenger, even starting a couple of days out from your scheduled flight. If significant inclement weather is forecasted during your travel day, contact the airline and ask about changing your flight. Many airlines will waive change fees when inclement weather is expected from the airport you are departing from.

Download the mobile app for the airline you are flying on and enable push notifications. This way, you can be notified quickly about delays. If you are at the airport and a flight delay occurs, get in line to talk to a gate agent or call the airline. Lines to speak to gate agents will get long fast, so you can make flight changes over the phone with the airline to avoid waiting in line.

What are some examples of how airlines might compensate a passenger on a delayed flight?

There is no law requiring airlines to compensate passengers for delays. Suppose passengers are boarded on the plane, and there is a delay on the tarmac. In that case, airlines can keep passengers on the aircraft for a maximum of three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. Also, the airline must provide passengers with snacks and water no later than two hours after the start of a tarmac delay.

While on the plane, start looking at other flight options on the airline mobile app if it appears you may go back to the gate. If the aircraft goes back to the gate, talk to the gate agent or call the airline to see what other flight options you may have.

How can travelers protect themselves from the consequences of flight delays?

Passengers should consider various factors when scheduling flights. For example, during the summer, book departure flights early in the morning. Booking early in the morning helps to avoid the afternoon delays caused by thunderstorms. Also, don't book flights with tight connecting flight times, or consider direct flights. If you must book a connecting flight, give yourself an hour between connections. If you are delayed, having more time between connecting flights helps to avoid missing your connecting flight.

Is schedule padding going to become more common?

Airlines are constantly reviewing and adjusting flight times. Incremental increases in the scheduled flight times between airports are not uncommon. While this may help improve the airline's on-time performance statistics, it comes at a cost. For passengers, that cost may be landing at an airport early and not having a gate available for the aircraft or extending their time in the terminal between connecting flights.

Jeff Price

Professor — Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science

Metropolitan State University of Denver

What can passengers do when their flights are delayed?

The best actions a passenger can take start before the delay takes place. Try to fly out on an earlier flight if possible; that way, if your flight is delayed, there might be later flights in the day that you can still catch. If the delay is going to cause you to miss a connection, miss an important meeting, or some other reason you have to be there by a certain time, you might be able to book on another airline. Depending on the airline, you might be able to have your original airline book you on another flight or another airline they “code share” with. Code sharing is where an airline will have an agreement with another airline to sell tickets under their company name, but you're actually operating on a different flight or, in some cases, on a different airline altogether.

You can also book on an airline that does not code-share, but you’ll have to do the rebooking yourself, either through their app, by calling their reservation line or by going to their ticket counter or gate. You may be able to get your trip refunded, or a portion of it, on most airlines due to the delay if that happens. I have had to do this personally. A flight on one airline that was experiencing a maintenance delay of at least a few hours was going to cause me to miss my connection. I booked another flight on a different airline out of the same airport to my same destination. When I got off my original flight I told the ticket agent I would not be returning for the flight, so they knew not to look for me or for my bags. If you have checked baggage, this is much more difficult to do and may not be possible unless they cancel the flight. Then, you can retrieve your luggage from baggage claim and haul it to another airline ticket counter — or let your original airline rebook you and it will likely move your checked bags for you.

Depending on the circumstances, you might try to fly out an entire day or so earlier. My family does this when we take a cruise. We fly out an extra day or so in advance to reduce our chances of a delayed or canceled flight. Obviously, in some severe circumstances, like the one that occurred with Southwest over the holidays, no amount of pre-planning is likely to help in such situations. Individuals resorted to various measures, such as renting cars to travel to their desired location or, if possible, driving their own vehicles to reach their destination. Some people drove to other airports in the region to look for other flight options.

Something almost every business traveler knows is when you need to rebook a flight, try to avoid standing in the customer service line. Often, using the airline app or using your status level with the airline, there may be a phone number you can call to get rebooked.

Overall, airlines do have a responsibility to get you to your destination or refund your money. In most cases, they will rebook you on other available flights; however, in some cases that might not be until a day or two later.

Will schedule padding become more common?

Padding schedules is a common practice across all modes of transportation, especially in the airline industry where external factors like air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, and weather conditions can significantly impact the departure and arrival times, leading to constant changes. Padding is nothing more than programming in extra time to the actual flight time to account for variables. It’s just like a person driving to a location early to account for unexpected traffic or delays.

In the event that your flight arrives before the scheduled time, but the pilot informs the passengers that the gate is occupied, it is likely an indication that the flight has operated seamlessly according to the schedule that day. In such a situation, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view from the ramp while waiting for the gate to open.

However, if you’re sitting on the ramp beyond your arrival time, then other problems may have occurred in the system and gone beyond the padded time. This can result in a chain reaction of other flights being delayed. However, due to the padding, sometimes the airlines can catch up that day.

Ahmed F. Abdelghany, Ph.D.

Professor, Associate Dean of Research — David O'Maley College of Business

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

What can passengers do when their flights are delayed?

Schedule disruptions could happen for different reasons. Passengers should be prepared for any possible scenario by packing essential items such as medication, extra clothes, toiletries, and phone chargers in their carry-on bags.

Passengers should stay updated on the status of their flight by checking the airline's website or app, signing up for flight alerts, and listening to airport announcements. Passengers should contact their airline as soon as possible to find out the reason for the delay and to see if any alternative flights or accommodations can be arranged.

Passengers should know their rights and entitlements under the airline's policies, as well as under the relevant regulations and laws. Depending on the reason and the length of the delay, passengers may be entitled to compensation, meals, and/or accommodations.

If the delay is significant and passengers cannot wait, they should consider making alternative travel plans, such as rebooking their flight, taking a different mode of transportation, or booking a hotel room. It is important for passengers to remain calm and patient, as the situation is often beyond their control. Being polite and respectful to airline staff can also help resolve the situation more smoothly.

If the delay is going to be lengthy, passengers should make themselves as comfortable as possible by finding a quiet spot to sit or relax, using airport lounges, or purchasing food and drinks.

What are some examples of how airlines might compensate a passenger on a delayed flight?

It is important to note that compensation policies vary by airline and reason for the delay and may be subject to specific conditions and limitations. Passengers should consult the airline's website for delayed flights. Airlines may compensate passengers for delayed flights in various ways, depending on the severity of the delay and the airline's policies. Here are some examples:

  1. Rebooking on a different flight. In some cases, airlines may offer to rebook passengers on the next available flight at no additional cost.
  2. Providing meal vouchers. Airlines may offer passengers meal vouchers for use at the airport or onboard the flight if the delay is expected to last for several hours.
  3. Offering hotel accommodations. If a flight is delayed overnight, airlines may provide passengers with hotel accommodations, transportation to and from the hotel, and meal vouchers.
  4. Providing a partial or complete refund. If a delay causes a passenger to miss a connecting flight, airlines may offer a partial refund or credit toward future travel.
  5. Upgrading the passenger. If there are available seats in a higher class, airlines may offer to upgrade passengers on a delayed flight.
  6. Offering compensation. Some airlines may offer compensation in the form of cash, miles, or vouchers for future travel.
How can travelers protect themselves from the consequences of flight delays?

While flight delays are sometimes unavoidable, travelers can take steps to protect themselves from the consequences of these delays. Here are some tips:

  1. Research the airline's policies on flight delays and cancellations before booking a flight. . Knowing the airline's policies can help you prepare for potential delays and understand what compensation you may be entitled to.
  2. Choose nonstop itineraries or connecting itineraries with longer layovers. Flights with longer layovers may be less likely to be affected by delays, as there is more time built into the schedule for unexpected events.
  3. Avoid airlines that have limited service (limited frequency) or limited travel itinerary options through other hubs.
  4. Purchase travel insurance. Travel insurance can provide coverage for unexpected events such as flight delays, cancellations, and missed connections. Be sure to read the policy carefully and understand the coverage before purchasing.
  5. Sign up for flight alerts. Many airlines offer flight alert services that will notify you of any changes to your flight status, including delays. These alerts can help you plan accordingly and avoid potential problems.
  6. Pack essentials in carry-on luggage. In case of a delay or cancellation, it's a good idea to pack essential items such as medications, a change of clothes, and important documents in your carry-on luggage.
  7. Have a backup plan: If you have an important meeting or event scheduled at your destination, consider arriving a day early to avoid potential delays. Alternatively, have a backup plan in place in case of a delay or cancellation, such as contacting your hotel or rental car company to reschedule.
Is schedule padding going to become more common?

Airlines avoid unnecessary schedule padding because it increases their cost and reduces the utilization of aircraft and crew.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How to save money on traveling

Flight delays or not, there are a few things you can do to ease the financial burden when you’re traveling:

  • Schedule your flights wisely. Knowing when to fly can save you money and time, no matter where you’re traveling. These are the best and worst times to fly.
  • Save money on tickets. Your next plane trip doesn’t have to break the bank. With these clever tips to save on airline ticket prices, you can expand your vacation options.
  • Elevate your airport experience. From earning miles and points to getting lounge access and free checked bags, airline credit cards can make your trip through the airport more enjoyable.

Methodology

To compile the data shown above, we downloaded over 35 million flight records from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, representing all domestic flights from 2012, and 2017 to 2022.

To create a representative sample, and to reduce the outlier impact of lower-passenger-volume on regional flights, we filtered our dataset to only the 150 most-traveled (by flight volume) routes in the U.S. in 2022. This represents 4.8 million flights totaling more than 11 million hours of scheduled flights.

In the data, we calculated “padding time” for each flight by subtracting the Scheduled Flight Time from the Actual Flight Time for each flight that was on time or delayed less than 15 minutes (to be consistent with BTS standards). We were able to calculate the time on the ground by subtracting the Time in Air from Actual Flight Time.

We repeated this process for 2012’s data to create decade comparisons. Note that 2022 contained data only through November 2022. The most recent data at the time of collection was in Q1 2023. We have no reason to believe the omission of December’s data would impact this analysis in a meaningful way (it would have also reflected major Southwest Airlines cancellations and holiday travel).

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Author Details

Josh Koebert Josh Koebert is an experienced content marketer that loves exploring how personal finance overlaps with topics such as sports, food, pop culture, and more. His work has been featured on sites such as CNN, ESPN, Business Insider, and Lifehacker.

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