For the past two summers airlines were pressured to build their schedules back after the hiatus of the pandemic, characterized by disruption and chaos at airports, with staffing shortages across the aviation ecosystem a major contributing factor. The result was higher levels of cancellations than the airlines, and their passengers, would have liked. As we move into the busy summer season the question is: will this summer be different?
Building Operational Resilience
Aviation staffing resources are now improving, but new aircraft are being manufactured at a slower rate than was hoped. Bringing back parked aircraft is also taking time due to issues with the supply of parts and maintenance staff. Aware that the travelling public may have little tolerance for more travel chaos, airlines are looking to build operational resilience into their summer flight schedules.
The US domestic aviation market is one of the most recovered in the world, however, several US airlines have recently been reported as increasing scheduled flight times by small increments to provide that extra buffer, so that when things go wrong – as they inevitably do sometimes – there is a bit more room for recovery.
Top 5 Most Popular US Domestic Flight Routes
We’ve analysed the flying time for the Top 5 most popular U.S. domestic flight routes, comparing a week in May 2023 with the same week in 2022 and in 2019 (before the Covid-19 pandemic). Between them, these flight routes illustrate some of the tactics airlines are using to build resilience into their schedules this summer.
Flight Route No. 1: San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX)
Getting There More Slowly?
San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX) is the busiest airline route in the U.S. with 263 weekly flights (frequencies) in each direction in the week of 8 May 2023. This is 37 more than in the same week last year but 47 fewer than in 2019.
Flying on this route has become slower this year compared to last year with scheduled flight times now a little longer. The average flight is now 1 hour and 33 minutes, up from 1 hour and 30 minutes in May last year. Could it be that airlines, knowing that the skies were not so busy last year, were over-ambitious in their scheduling?
Flights are scheduled with a range of flying times for different airlines and different aircraft. This is especially apparent when looking at the number of flights scheduled in 15-minute blocks of time. There are fourteen of the 263 weekly flights operated this May with a flight time of more than 1 hour 46 minutes which is fewer than back in 2019. Back then the average elapsed time was of 1 hour 40 minutes, so flights were even longer than now.
On this route, there are six airlines providing scheduled services. United Airlines has one of the larger operations on the route and all flights by each aircraft type it uses have the same scheduled flight time. So, for instance, all 21 of its A320 flights are scheduled to fly this route in 1 hour and 40 minutes. This marks a change from last year when even on the same aircraft were scheduled with different flying times.
Flight Route No. 2: Los Angeles (LAX) to Las Vegas (LAS)
LCCs Fly Faster
The second busiest domestic U.S. route is Los Angeles (LAX) to Las Vegas (LAS). Like SFO-LAX, it also has a less frequent service now compared to before the pandemic (-22 flights), but more flights per week than last year (+13 flights).
The average flight on this route has got a little faster this year. At 1 hour and 14 minutes, scheduled flight times are 1 minute less this year on average than last year, and 4 minutes faster than in May 2019.
The dominant airline is Southwest which operates 31% of all weekly flights this May, with an even lower average elapsed time of just 1 hour 10 minutes, which is the same as it scheduled last year.
Delta Air Lines, which is the second largest airline on the route, has increased the average flying time from 1 hour 10 minutes last year to 1 hour 15 minutes this year. This route was operated by Delta to a schedule of 1 hour 10 minutes back in 2019 so, is this a sign of a legacy carrier padding the schedule a little?
Meanwhile, 3rd largest airline flying this route has shaved 7 minutes off the average flight time and contributed to the fractionally shorter scheduled flight time.
Flight Route No. 3: Los Angeles (LAX) and New York (JFK)
Faster With an LCC
The route between Los Angeles (LAX) and New York’s JFK has an average scheduled flying time of 5 hours and 33 minutes. This is 2 minutes more than last year but 5 minutes less than in May 2019.
There are three airlines flying this route:
- JetBlue, the largest, with a 36% share of flights
- Delta Air Lines with 33% share of flights
- American Airlines with a 31% share
JetBlue has reduced the average elapsed time on the route to 5 hours 31 minutes from 5 hours 36 minutes last year and 5 hours 38 minutes in 2019.
In contrast, both Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have increased the flying time this year to 5 hours 35 minutes, perhaps reflecting different approaches between LCCs and legacy carriers.
Flight Route No. 4: Washington National Airport (DCA) to Boston (BOS
Regional Jets Need Longer in the Air
The route from Washington National Airport (DCA) to Boston (BOS) is the only one of the Top 5 domestic routes which is busier now than it was back in 2019. With 203 flights each way per week, this is almost a 20% increase on flights over 2019, though slightly fewer than last year.
Flying times have got longer, rising from 1 hour 31 minutes in 2019 to 1 hour 36 minutes last year and 1 hour 40 minutes this year. The airlines flying this route – American, JetBlue and Delta – fly a mix of jet aircraft and smaller Embraer aircraft.
Delta didn’t fly this route in 2019 and is a major contributor to the additional frequencies. With its 50 E75 flights each way, these regional aircraft have an average flying time of 1 hour 48 minutes, significantly more than JetBlue’s 94 E90 aircraft which are scheduled to take 1 hour 35 minutes, or American’s A319 aircraft which are scheduled to take 1 hour 38 minutes.
Flight Route No. 5: Chicago O'Hare (ORD) to New York (LGA)
Longer in the Air
American, Delta and United all operate this route with no LCC competition, Spirit having left the market after 2019.
United has the most weekly flights, with 81 of the 200 scheduled but hasn’t changed either capacity or flying time since last May. American, has scaled back from 97 weekly flights last year to 69 this year and also extended the average elapsed time from 2 hours 5 minutes to 2 hours 13 minutes, but this is still just slightly less than the average United flying time of 2 hours 14 minutes. Delta, while not changing capacity, has also extended the flying time, from 2 hours 12 minutes to 2 hours 16 minutes.
The net result is that average flying times have increased and the proportion of flights that take longer than 2:15 hours has increased to 34% of all flights.
Shaping Up for Summer
While every flight route is different, this analysis reveals some broad trends taking place in the U.S. domestic market:
- Legacy airlines, in particular, have been adjusting their flight schedules by adding a few extra minutes on some routes. As the skies get busier this will provide a small buffer to help get the airline schedule back on track if there are delays. It will also help them meet on-time performance targets.
- Low-cost carriers often schedule shorter flying times than legacy airlines. Presumably, their focus on high aircraft utilization, point-to-point travel, and slick aircraft turnaround processes means there is a greater focus on minimising delays - enabling these airlines to schedule with more reliability.
- Airlines continue to schedule the same route with different flying times, even for the same aircraft type. While it is understandable that some aircraft types may be faster than others, leading to the potential to schedule shorter times in the air, the reality is that there is no consistency in elapsed time flown by airline and route.