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The Punctuality Debate: Is Airline On-Time Performance Still Relevant?

The world is changing, and airlines must acknowledge re-examining certain long-held beliefs. Undoubtedly, no one blames airlines for the current situation due to COVID-19. However, many airlines are stuck doing things in an outdated way that leads to inefficiency. For example, one thing I often observe when talking to airlines is the quasi-religious focus on punctuality.

Airline Punctuality — The Most Prominent Quality Indicator

Airline punctuality (on-time performance), probably, is the most prominent airline quality indicators. When searching the web, you find hundreds of rankings, analyses, and press releases. Moreover, the amount of tools and measures to improve airline punctuality is equally extensive.

And there are many reasons why this is the case. First of all, airline punctuality, or an airline’s on-time performance, reflects a relatively easy-to-calculate quality indicator. This is because every airline possesses the required data that, in a simplified way, consists of the scheduled time of arrival and the actual time of arrival. Therefore, airline punctuality has served decades as a quality indicator for the entire industry and benchmarking airlines’ quality.

Airline Punctuality? We’ve Always Measured That Indicator!

The before-mentioned aspects are also arguments airlines representatives answer when asked for the reason for measuring on-time performance. Typically enriched with the statement “we’ve always measure punctuality.”

However, I genuinely believe that challenging times offer the possibility to reassess everything that has been done for decades. So let’s have a closer look at airline punctuality.

The Pandemic Degraded Airline Punctuality.

Do you remember that time when packed airports, bursting airspaces, and aircraft shortages dominated the aviation world? Although this was the reality until the pandemic broke loose, it somehow feels far away. However, back in those days, airline punctuality was essential. Business people hadn’t discovered the advantages of Zoom, and therefore, every minute counted when flying from meeting A to B. And I vividly remember my dad being pissed for three days when he arrived 30 minutes late at his holiday destination.

Those days seem to be over for the moment. Even after Covid-19, a considerable portion of business meetings will be held virtually. And I even go so far and say that a 30 minutes delay on a business trip will bother only a small portion of people. Oh, and by the way, my dad today couldn’t care less about airline punctuality — he wants to go on vacation.

Without Naiveté — Airline Punctuality Will be a Secondary Quality Indicator for Some Time.

Don’t tell me I’m naive. On the contrary, I’m profoundly convinced that —once the pandemic is over— people will —step-by-step— try to get their previously known routines back. The number of on-site business meetings will slowly grow again, and my dad will start yelling at the airline too. Nonetheless, it will be the so-called “new normal,” and it will be different.

Airline Punctuality Needs to Adapt to the 21’s Century Zeitgeist.

But let’s get into productive and positive thinking. First, of course, it will always make sense for an airline to monitor operational quality indicators. Moreover, it will always be essential to examine those indicators to identify problems and weaknesses closely. 

And here’s my biggest concern: As mentioned initially, airline punctuality —first and foremost— is simple to calculate. But, there is an immense problem with that quality indicator. It, unintentionally, leaves the essential aspect: The passenger!

Since the beginning, airline punctuality has concentrated on flight events; and that’s how it is still done today. I don’t want to bore you with mathematics, but this is important. An airline calculates punctuality as the number of punctual flights in relation to the overall number of flights. Sounds reasonable at first sight. However, as mentioned, it leaves out the passenger. 

Let’s do an Example!

Let me give you a simple (theoretical) example: An airline operates five flights—four feeder flights to its hub and a long-haul flight from its hub. On each feeder flight are only 20 passengers, and the long-haul flight is operated with an A380 carrying 340 passengers. As a result, all feeder flights are on time, but the airline needs to delay the long-haul flight by 3 hours. 

What does that mean for the airline’s punctuality? Hmm, the indicator looks quite good: 80% on-time performance — that’s the upper third on a global level. However, once we shift our view towards the passenger, we rapidly see that 80% (340 out of 420) will be miserable—the total opposite of the punctuality quality indicator.

It’s an Airline-Selfish Quality Indicator.

I’m totally aware that this is a theoretical example. Nevertheless, I’m also convinced that airline punctuality is a very “Airline-selfish” quality indicator. Instead of passengers, it puts an airline’s flight in the center of analysis. 

Enriching Airline Punctuality With Additional Aspects.

As a result, I a big advocate of the “punctuality-enrichment-concept.” Step-by-step, airlines should add more aspects to the punctuality indicator. The number of passengers, lost baggage, waiting times, etc. Ultimately, a so-called passenger satisfaction index could replace on-time performance — or at least serve as an additional quality indicator.

This, from my point of view, would reflect one super-important step towards more customer-centric operations.

Let me know your thought on this! Hit me up on Twitter or get in touch on LinkedIn

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Benjamin Walther

CEO, Frankfurt

Benjamin is Information Design's CEO and a proven content-maniac. Besides running a successful business and developing pioneering ideas, he's dedicated to writing blog posts and creating content.

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