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How far to Sydney?

By TravelOctober, 2008December 13th, 20233 min read

The strangest thing happened the other day. I was booking a Qantas flight (from Melbourne) to Sydney, and I noticed that the arrival times had all changed. The flights leave every half hour, and the last time I booked one, the duration was 1:20. So the 5pm flight would arrive at 6:20pm. However, now, that same flight is scheduled to arrive at 6:25pm.

I quickly went to Google Maps and checked: had Sydney moved 5 minutes further north? Or perhaps they had just opened a new airport or a fourth runway? Or maybe there was a seismic shift or a crack opened up in the fabric of space-time?

Sadly, none of these things had happened. So why the change? I’m guessing it’s actually the marketing people who are behind it. One of the ways airlines are judged is by their punctuality – the percentage of flights that arrive “on time”. So what do you do if your flights keep arriving late? There are basically two options: either work faster, or change the definition of “on time”.

Qantas have taken the soft option, and reset their customers’ expectations. They are not performing any better or more efficiently. They have just shifted the performance bar, in the wrong direction. Now customers will be happier, because their flights will arrive on time more often, and they can point to their arrival time statistics and benchmark them against other airlines. These marketing people are pretty clever, eh?

Those of us who have flown for a long time, or who listen to the stuff the captain says, or who follow the flight path (yes, I know, we’re geeks), may see a pattern emerging. The flight time from Melbourne to Sydney is around 55 minutes on average. Back in the day, the official flight time was 1:10, which allowed for taxi time. So it’s now taking longer to board planes, longer to taxi, and the other trend is changes to flight paths.

One would think that if going from Melbourne to Sydney, you would take off to the north, and land to the south. Like the old adage – “the shortest distance between two points is a straight line” (or perhaps a great circle route). But that’s not what we did. We took off, then executed a couple of turns, and then on the approach to Sydney, turned left over Paramatta, and then around and back to come in from the northern runway. The squiggly line on the screen connecting origin and destination looked like something a child would bring back from kinder.

Now, if airlines keep adding fuel surcharges because the oil price is so high (another clever piece of marketing), surely it would make sense to optimize flight paths so as to minimize the amount of fuel they use? Again, that is just one option. The other, easier option, is to pad official flight times, and let the customer pay for the extra fuel, and time.

Thank you Qantas. You are a shining light among airlines. Not the first with too-clever marketing people, and definitely not the last.

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  • Andrew says:

    Interesting – one thing though – planes are often directed by air traffic control to take off/land on specific runways for all sorts of reasons and those runways may often not be the most efficient from a save fuel/save time point of view. It doesn’t mean your main thesis about the reason for adding 5 minutes to the flight time isn’t right though

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