Formula One Science in Aircraft Turnarounds

Every Second (or Minute) Literally Counts

Two point one seconds, the fastest pit stop time from this year’s three Grand Prix events, goes to Charles Leclerc and the Ferrari team in Saudi Arabia: that’s an impressive turnaround. Unfortunately, it’s not quite possible to turn around an aircraft in that space of time but this is an area of operational analysis getting increasing coverage from both airports and airlines around the world. And as always, OAG has the key data at hand to inform that interest!

There’s an old saying aircraft only earn money when they are in the air and it’s true, although it is not quite as simple as that. For both airports and airlines, understanding operational performance in its minutest detail - and shaving minutes or even seconds off an aircraft’s turnaround - can save thousands of dollars over the course of a year.

Turnaround for Airports…
Operational efficiency can be increased at airports by moving aircraft away from valuable gates swiftly, preventing the need for more gates in the long-term, and in the short-term it reduces bussing operations, with a subsequent saving on carbon emissions.

Turnaround for Airlines…
By reducing an aircraft turnaround by ten minutes four times a day, airlines have the opportunity of 40 more minutes flying, or revenue-earning potential per day; multiply that by a year’s flying and it could increase the revenue opportunity for airlines. Suddenly you can see why all the interest; indeed, one major London airport worked with a major F1 operations team to analyze and improve turnaround times.

Chasing the Plane

At OAG we not only track on-time performance across the world’s airlines, but we also track the aircraft registration and manufacturer’s serial number (where available) giving us a microscopic level of detail around how an airline’s fleet is being used, where the aircraft are, and what they are doing at any one time. It’s fascinating flight data that allows us to look at operational data in various ways, and turnaround times are a great area for analysis. Yes, it’s almost geeky!

For March we have tracked the turnaround times of the major US carriers to understand how they have performed against their scheduled turnaround times at their respective hub airports and by specific aircraft types, and as you would expect some airlines and airports are better than others. The planned average turnaround times for the US majors ranged from 52 minutes in the case of Southwest to 68 minutes for United Airlines, with all six airlines reporting average actual turnaround times of between 59 minutes (Southwest) and 77 in the case of Delta Air Lines.

None of the US majors managed to turn around their aircraft within the planned timeframes, United Airlines were the closest with an average of six minutes’ difference between planned and actuals - which doesn’t seem very much but looked at another way is nearly 10% longer than planned. JetBlue had the longest variance at 12 minutes or an average 19% variance.

Average Turnaround Times US Majors, March 2023

Source: OAG Flight Status Data

Analysis of each individual airline at some of their selected base airports shows that United Airlines had a particularly good March with the average turnaround delay in San Francisco at just 4 minutes, the lowest reported across the sample and just 5% longer than planned. Even at United’s worst-performing airport analyzed, New York Newark, the average delay was 10 minutes as the table below highlights, or just 15% later than planned.

United Airlines Average Turnaround Times At Selected Airports, March 2023

Source: OAG Flight Status Data

At the other end of the spectrum, March was not a great month for JetBlue, at least in terms of turnaround performance, with the percentage variance against planned turnaround ranging from 17% to 25% across the observed bases. In Orlando, JetBlue incurred an average delay of 16 minutes or 25% against planned time - the highest across the five airlines sampled.

JetBlue Average Turnaround Times At Selected Airports, March 2023

Source: OAG Flight Status Data

Narrowbodies Beat the Widebodies

If you’ve ever watched the planes from a gate lounge then you won’t be surprised to know that it’s quicker to turn around a narrow-bodied aircraft than a wide-bodied aircraft; after all there is more to do on a wide-bodied turnaround, but as you would expect there are performance differences across each airline.

Taking the typical narrow-body aircraft use by each airline (as the table below illustrates) the planned average turnaround for each airline is around the one-hour mark, but actual performance ranges from United Airlines who turned around their A320’s within seven minutes of plan, to JetBlue who while planning for 63 minutes were operating with a typical 76-minute turnaround or 21% variance.

Average Turnaround Times Narrow Bodied Aircraft Types, US Majors March 2023

Source: OAG Flight Status Data

Across the wide-bodied fleets of the three legacy majors, we compared both an older generation aircraft type with the latest additions to their fleets to see if there was any difference in results, with an assumption that the older fleets would have a closer performance between planned and actual; well, we got that assumption wrong! For both American and United the B777W seemed to perform poorly in March, for American a 56% variance and for United 22% variance were both worse than reported on their newer wide-bodied aircraft types.

Average Turnaround Times Wide-bodied Aircraft Types, US Majors March 2023

Source: OAG Flight Status Data

Just Data and Averages 

Although the turnaround data is just a series of averages and so many factors impact an aircraft turnaround, some of which the airline and airport can control, others, such as the weather and FAA capacity leave any airline at the mercy of what happens on the day. However, for the airline such data can provide the initial starting point for a detailed analysis of both a specific airport operation and perhaps the gate allocation for selected services, or indeed subtle adjustments in schedules that could alleviate the pressures every turnaround creates for an airline.

Ultimately in isolation, a six or seven minute delay in a planned turnaround can in many cases be recovered at some stage in a flight and indeed, on-time performance remains as good as it has been in recent months, but as we know from watching an F1 Grand Prix, saving seconds (or minutes) can mean the difference between winning and losing.


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