Why Airlines Don’t Tell You How Long Flights Really Are

It's not your imagination that your pilot shaved some time off the flight.

Even if you arrive the last possible second before your flight leaves, you still find yourself tapping your foot impatiently when your plane doesn’t take off until well after its scheduled time. If your flight actually does manage to arrive on time (or even early!), it’s both a shock and a relief—but it actually shouldn’t be a big surprise.

Any seasoned traveler knows that flights never go quite as smoothly as they should. Sure, you might have some delays in security, but think of everything the airline needs to rely on. Mechanical problems, risky weather, and several other factors can throw off your own schedule as well as the plane’s schedule for the whole day even on the best flights. Not only will that aircraft be late for its next flight, but it could cause backup for other planes waiting for it to move on the runway. Flight delays are so common, in fact, that statistics consider a flight to be “on time” as long as it’s within 15 minutes of the time on your ticket.

One pilot confessed to Reader’s Digest that airlines exaggerate their times to make themselves look better. “No, it’s not your imagination: Airlines really have adjusted their flight arrival times so they can have a better record of on-time arrivals,” the AirTran Airways captain said. “So they might say a flight takes two hours when it really takes an hour and 45 minutes.” Check out these other 40 things an airplane pilot won’t tell you.

Airlines deny buffering flight times to boost their on-time stats, but they do acknowledge adjusting their estimations based on data. For instance, Ryanair says it adjusts flight times after every season to keep flight time expectations realistic, not to make customers happy. “We do not and have never adjusted flight times to improve on-time performance, as this would reduce the efficiency of our operations,” a spokesperson told The Telegraph.

Similarly, EasyJet told The Telegraph it figures out flight times based on three-year averages. A British Airways spokesperson said the airline plans its flight times based on aircraft type, airport infrastructure, weather, and other factors. None of the airlines specified, but there’s a chance that their calculations take the usual delays into account, rather than just looking at a best-case-scenario flight. Plus, the airlines might account for potential bad weather, leaving a smooth ride a pleasant surprise. For more insider info, read these 13 secrets airlines are keeping from you (but every flier should know.

What’s more, some flights won’t arrive at the gate “on time” without a bit of padding even if they do touch down at their scheduled time. For example, it takes 15 minutes to taxi to the terminal on one Amsterdam runway, so airlines would need to add some wiggle room to flight times to avoid cranky customers.

Don’t get overly antsy if it’s taking ages for your flight to take off. FiveThirtyEight investigated whether pilots could really get a plane to its destination any faster after a delay and found that when flights were held up between 35 and 50 minutes, the pilots managed to shave about 20 minutes off the flight time. Before your next flight, make sure you know which 16 travel mistakes you should never make at the airport.

Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s Medscape.com and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.