Defining Late: On-Time Performance in the Aviation Industry

What is On-Time Performance?

On-Time Performance (OTP) is a widely accepted method for measuring punctuality across different modes of public transport, not just aviation. It provides a standardized means of comparing how well one service provider operates according to its published schedule, compared to another.

In aviation, an airline departure or arrival which is on time has a departure or arrival that occurs within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. The schedule is the basis of the airline's service promise to its customers. Inevitably, external disruptions such as adverse weather conditions, congestion, incidents, and industrial action can cause unforeseen delays for operators. However, in general, a flight’s OTP is influenced by the performance of airlines and airports. Therefore, OTP is widely used as a powerful key performance indicator (KPI) for airlines and airports and is also a potential service differentiator for marketing the brand to air travelers.

Only as Good as the Schedule

An airline’s schedule (typically published up to 12 months in advance) is used as the fundamental reference point for OTP. Airlines are therefore measured as on-time (or not) by what they put in their schedule. This means that you can have scenarios where two airlines might pad their flights differently, publish this in their schedule and result in them operating different elapsed times for the same flight route - one may be classed as late and the other as on-time even if they took off and landed simultaneously.  

Of course, airlines have good reasons for allowing more time for flights (flight padding), such as airport congestion. Some airlines may also want to meet know corporate travel thresholds, which encourage and incentivize business customers to choose flights that are long enough to justify flying in business class. Overall, having a strong reputation for OTP is a valuable asset for airlines.

Why else would a carrier be scheduling a flight from Paris to Boston at 08:02 hours when its competitors have schedules of 07:50 hours and 07:40 hours? Equally, other airlines are strongly incentivized to maximize aircraft utilization which may lead to more challenging schedules. For them, punctuality is always more of a challenge and the targets are demanding.

How Does OAG Measure On-Time Performance?

OAG has the world’s largest network of flight status data and processes millions of updates daily, from over 130,000 tracked flights. The world’s airlines send OAG their status data to ensure their travelers and stakeholders at every stage of the journey have accurate and reliable flight status data anytime, anywhere. 

On-time performance is the percentage of flights that arrive or depart within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival or departure time. Arriving or departing 15 minutes or after the schedule is taken as not on-time. At OAG, airline on-time performance is based on the actual gate arrival times within 15 minutes of schedule. Departing 15 minutes or more after the scheduled departure is taken as not on-time. 

Airport On-Time Performance is based on the actual departure gate times within 15 minutes of schedule. Arriving 15 minutes or after scheduled arrival is taken as not on-time. Cancelations are also included and taken as not on-time. 

Status coverage will only be based on actual gate times rather than estimated times.

Why is Flight On-Time Performance Important?

OTP has a critical role to play in airline operations management. Delays affect productivity and cost airlines thousands of dollars every year. Many airlines have embedded OTP as a KPI using this to measure and evaluate processes and identify improvements to their operations.

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Key Operational Benchmark 

Airlines and airports can analyze operational processes with different stakeholders e.g. ground handling and use flight-on-time performance within their systems to support better collaboration and efficiency. They can understand how operations at different locations perform to understand and learn from best practices. Many airlines choose to use OTP as one of their performance measures for staff, encouraging teams to work together towards the efficient turnaround of aircraft.

For an airline to operate truly reliable schedules it takes hard work and attention to detail. Achieving a high level of on-time performance is a complex task with a myriad of variables, not all of which lie within the control of an airline. Conversely, poor aviation OTP is often a sign of inefficiencies, weak management control of operations, and highlights competitor advantages.

Reputation Matters

Whilst a single measure can never do justice to the complexity of running a punctual operation, it can provide a handy shorthand for performance, as OAG’s Punctuality League proves every year. Journalists pick up the element of competition between airlines and airports, and airlines and airports are keen to justify or explain their ranking and promote it to their passengers. 

Punctuality has moved a long way from the days when it was simply an operational measure used by ground staff to keep an eye on performance. Today, it warrants its own mention in many of the annual reports of the world’s biggest and best airlines. 

Reliability can affect brand loyalty and ticket sales. Customer satisfaction is influenced by customer expectations, and a flight that arrives after the scheduled arrival time can be a stressful experience for passengers. Managing expectations is critical including external verification about flight reliability, so passengers can be better informed regarding the probability of their flight operating on time.

Critical for Connections

Arriving late at a destination is, of course, an inconvenience for travelers. However, when connecting passengers (travelers moving from one flight to another to complete their trip)are late it is more than just a nuisance. Missed flight connections, and bags that miss connections, cause genuine frustration and stress for passengers, as well as costs for airlines. At large airports, the proportion of connecting passengers passing through them is high. For example, at London Heathrow, 27% of passengers were connecting to another flight in July 2019. In some markets, the proportion of passengers traveling indirectly is even higher; 30% of passengers flying from the US to the UK were traveling via an airport that was neither their origin nor destination.

Rewards are Tangible

OTP is a critical KPI for airlines and airports and for those which succeed, the rewards are tangible:

•    More flights operating according to the schedule reflects an efficient airline.
•    Efficient on-time flights avoid unnecessary costs that inefficient flights  (late flights and missed connections) can cause, such as additional money for fuel, ground handling, staff payments and passenger compensation.
•    Passengers, and especially regular fliers, reward reliability with brand loyalty and repeat business.
•    Fewer delays and missed connections enhance customer satisfaction.
•    Close partnerships with airports on OTP is a prerequisite for exceptional hub performance.

What Does Good On-Time Performance Look Like?

Measuring aviation on-time performance - with millions and millions of flight records, and real-time updates of hundreds of flights at airports around the globe every day - can be challenging. 

Most people in the aviation industry would probably accept that an OTP of 80% or above is pretty good. That’s 4 in 5 flights arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. The very best airlines and airports succeed in punctuality closer to 90% - but they remain the exception, rather than the rule.

Going much beyond 80% of flights on time will be easier for some than for others. Operating at congested airports and in congested airspace will make it harder. In addition to this, as climate change begins to create more chaotic weather conditions, and storms in particular, keeping to schedule will be harder.

Achieving on-time performance well above 80% requires focus but there may be a point where striving towards ever higher OTP may be detrimental to the bottom line. The benefit of incremental improvements may be outweighed by the cost of achieving them.

How is On-Time Performance Tracked?

There are over 80 IATA delay codes, numbered 00 to 99, which were created to standardize the reporting of delays by airlines. This highlights how many activities need to be kept on track for an airline to maintain operations in line with the published schedule.

Codes starting with ‘7’ are for weather-related delays – frequently the type of delay passengers experience most. Although, of course, airlines are unable to control the weather, they can certainly be better prepared. Look at de-icing, for instance (code 75) - some airlines and airports in locations where conditions are often below zero are well prepared for de-icing and have resources on standby, but for others, ice is an anomaly. If changes to the climate mean that weather extremes will be more frequent, by changing processes and facilities airlines and airports can - and should - cope better.

Code 97 is for industrial action in an airline and has been the cause of some of the most persistent reductions in OTP performance in Europe, as strikes have occurred in several of the continents’ largest airlines. The typical duration of a strike and the scale of disruption that occurs, even when strike days are known in advance, often makes a marked dent in airline OTP. 

On a day-to-day basis, however, it might take something much less substantial to make an individual flight late. A pilot caught up in traffic jams on the way to a shift could mean a flight is late (code 63) or delays getting an aircraft cleaned (code 35) may affect the turnaround time and cause a late departure. Given that airlines operate a network of flights, of course, delays on one part of a system also have a knock-on effect elsewhere; late arriving flights can cause the aircraft to miss its scheduled next departure slot, and for an airline operating with tight turnaround times, the effect could ricochet through the rest of the days’ schedule for that aircraft.

While these individual events may not be predictable, we know they will happen from time to time and the more an airline or airport has planned for their occurrence, the better able it is to minimize risk.

How Can Airlines and Airports Improve OTP?

Increasingly airlines and airports are focusing on the detail of achieving strong aviation OTP and, a bit like a Grand Prix motor racing team or an elite cycling team, some are choosing to break down the processes involved into their constituent parts to see how performance can be improved at each step.

For some, collaborative decision making (CDM) is key, ensuring that teams cooperate to achieve win-win results. For others, it’s a matter of having good quality metrics and timely dashboards which ensure problems are addressed early. Some are choosing to build on-time performance into performance targets, either with contractors through service agreements or for staff through bonuses.

The use of predictive tools is also becoming more commonplace so that data collected as passengers pass through an airport can be used for planning staffing levels or identifying passengers who are late. Where airlines and airports take the bold step of sharing data everyone has the potential to improve OTP.

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Whatever approach an airline or airport takes to managing punctuality, there are no quick fixes. Achieving high levels of punctuality is a complex task and those with high airline OTP deserve to be congratulated. 

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What Data Can I Access?

Every day we track and process thousands of flights, cancellations, and flight status changes 52hr before departure time - 24h after. Data is available in real-time and we also have unique historical flight statistics which includes millions of flights dating back to 2004.

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How Can I Send Airline Data to OAG?

Airlines that send OAG flight status information will qualify for free inclusion in our Monthly Aviation On Time Performance data and the Punctuality League.

If you would like to find out more, please visit our Airline Partner Hub for more information.