I recently received a note from a reader pointing out something curious. He noticed that some flights on American were now showing some very long flight times, much longer than in the past. I decided to take a look myself, and sure enough, this wasn’t just a one-off. In the last year, American has significantly increased its block times despite there being far fewer flights in the air.
To look at this, I dove into Cirium schedule data to find the average block time by route. “Block time” is the amount of time the airline schedules for a flight to go from gate to gate. It’s the time you see on the schedule when you book a flight. I decided to pick a sample week in March from this year and compare it to a sample week last year. I wanted to use March since the schedules from last year were pre-pandemic, and I had to make sure to use a very similar week so that seasonal variation wouldn’t throw me off.
I pulled out the routes that didn’t operate last year but did this year, and vice versa. That left me with 1,680 routes to compare. I should note that these are directional routes. Block times can vary a lot depending upon the direction. For example, Miami to JFK on average had a block time of 3 hours and 2 minutes. But JFK to Miami was blocked at 10 minutes longer. So I looked at each direction separately.
I added up all the block time for all the flights on each route during the week and divided by the sum total of flights. Then I just looked at the percent change year over year. Here’s how those routes all plot on a chart.
American Average Block Time Change by Directional Route
March 15-21, 2021 vs March 16-22, 2020
As you can see, of the 1,680 routes, only 275 saw a decrease, 21 saw no change, and 1,384 saw an increase. This really surprised me. After all, with traffic down, shouldn’t block times decrease considering there are fewer air traffic control delays and less gate congestion?
Before I dug in further, I wanted to do a sanity check to make sure that this wasn’t an industry-wide phenomenon. I looked at other airlines, and found the data to clearly show that it was not.
Average Block Time Change by Directional Route by Airline
March 15-21, 2021 vs March 16-22, 2020
While there was some variation, sure enough American has increased block on a higher percent of routes that anyone else by far.
I went back to the American data to see if I could break this down further and find some trends. I started with the routes that were seeing decreasing block time. Of the 20 biggest decreases, 6 of those involved flights to Key West. I’m guessing something happened in Key West that enabled them to reduce their block time. Or they just realized that they had put more than they needed after analyzing performance.
Another five of them involved departures from Washington/National. Some were on routes like DC to LaGuardia or Philly, where I assume the congestion used to just crush those flights. But even these gains were fairly modest. Still, this wasn’t the real story. It was more interesting to consider why other routes saw block times go up so much.
A clear picture started to emerge quickly. There were 23 routes that saw increases of more than 20 percent. Of those, a whopping 17 involved short-haul departures from Phoenix. Here’s the Great Circle Mapper map:
Once you get under 20 percent, Phoenix still dominates. So clearly there’s something going on with the airline’s Phoenix operation, but it’s a puzzle. And these block times appear very heavily padded. For example, American has a flight at 1:25pm from Phoenix to Long Beach that’s blocked at 1 hour and 50 minutes. The flight time itself rarely exceeds an hour. Meanwhile, Southwest has a flight at 2:55pm that’s blocked at only 1 hour and 15 minutes. Though Southwest usually does have a shorter taxi time in Phoenix, it’s not 35 minutes more. It goes both ways, the 7:04am return is blocked at 1 hour and 48 minutes on American while the 9:10am on Southwest is 1 hour and 15 minutes.
Phoenix may be the most aggressive, but it goes well beyond the Valley of the Sun. United has a flight at 2:09pm from O’Hare to Cedar Rapids that is blocked at 1 hour and 8 minutes. American has a flight at 2:15pm that’s 1 hour and 21 minutes. You might argue that with terminals in different places, block times can vary by airline and that is true. But last March, American’s average block time in this market was 1 hour and 8 minutes. United’s was 1 hour and 12 minutes.
Even though block times were up everywhere, I asked American specifically about Phoenix and what was going on there. I was given this statement.
We have increased PHX block times recently, but as you look over the past year American has the lowest block performance when compared to our major competitors.
That may or may not be the case, but American has purposefully run its business that way, keeping block time lower so that it could squeeze more flying out. But now, it has very clearly altered its strategy. Maybe it’s because the airline has more crew and airplanes sitting round, so they don’t need to do it. Or maybe they’re trying to mask operational issues. Regardless of the reason, this seems counterintuitive.
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