Airlines are shaving minutes off flight times through faster boarding and new technology –

Passengers make their way through the terminal as they travel ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday at Washington Dulles International Airport in Dulles, Virginia, on November 22, 2023.

Kevin Lamarque | Portal

When traveling by plane, minutes matter.

A few moments could mean the difference between a connecting flight or a connecting flight for passengers – and could avoid delays that impact airlines’ entire schedule. The time saved could even translate into big savings for shippers as they struggle to get costs under control.

Major airlines are adopting strategies that executives say could result in lower costs and more efficient operations, even if the time savings appear negligible on paper.

Some of those tools will be put to the test during what is expected to be a busy holiday season, a year after a meltdown that left thousands of passengers stranded in late 2022. Many of the improvements are made behind the scenes.

American Airlines last year began using new technology to assign flight gates at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the second-busiest airport in the world and the largest hub in the U.S., where the company operates from 135 regional and mainline gates.

The new procedures, which replaced a nearly manual, hour-long process, allowed the airline to avoid having many of its planes transfer from the east side to the west side of the sprawling airport, saving an average of two minutes of taxi time per flight, up to about 11, he added Hours saved per day, American said.

According to the airline, the technology helped reduce taxi time by 20% and halve gate changes and conflicts.

“The airline’s overnight gate-gating process went from four hours to about 10 minutes,” said American COO David Seymour.

The so-called smart gating program has been expanded to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Miami International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and most recently, in May, O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, Seymour said, adding that the airline is considering using the technology in Phoenix as well.

Gate technology in other airports aims to avoid gate congestion, which could lead to delays in departures or parking of flights upon arrival.

“If you try to change the gate no later than the planes arrive, you could be out of sync with your catering and fueling operations,” Seymour said, adding that the tools developed by American are tailored to each airport’s problems.

During the first eight months of the year, 76.4% of American flights arrived within 15 minutes of their scheduled arrival time, which the Transportation Department considers on-time. This performance puts American Airlines third among major U.S. airlines in on-time arrivals, an improvement from fifth place in the same period last year.

Short taxi times and other improvements can help airlines save fuel, one of airlines’ biggest costs. American said its new gating program saves it 1.4 million gallons of fuel per year, which is about $4 million based on fuel prices at major U.S. airports this month.

Faster boarding

American isn’t the only one looking to save a few minutes of time.

United Airlines introduced a new economy class boarding process last month that places passengers first in the window seat, then in the middle aisle, then in the aisle. United told employees the changes could save up to two minutes per flight.

Southwest Airlines has also experimented with ways to speed up boarding this year, trying everything from better signage to music on the jet bridge to keep travelers moving. For years, Delta Air Lines flight attendants and gate agents have used digital messages during boarding to send alerts about problems like full overhead bins.

The low-cost airline Frontier Airlines wants to speed up boarding and deplaning by using routes outside the passenger boarding bridges. The company has begun using stairs directly in and out of the aircraft, taking advantage of a second door on the airline’s Airbus jets.

“If you want to get on a plane faster, use two [gates] instead of one,” said CEO Barry Biffle.

The Denver-based airline is in talks with several airports to increase this type of boarding without a traditional jet bridge. Biffle estimated that in about two years, the airline could use stairs to board and disembark on a third of its flights.

Biffle said this could save up to 10 minutes in turnaround time, the time it takes for a plane to park, disembark, reload and take off.

Robert Mann, who has worked at several airlines and is president of aviation consulting firm RW Mann & Co., said how airlines use the time savings will be crucial. Putting it back into the schedule could mean airlines wouldn’t have to allow as much time for a flight, he said.

“If you actually plan shorter flight times, you have more aircraft available,” he said.

An American Airlines spokesman said that in future schedules, as the airline becomes more efficient, it could allow less time for each flight, increasing the airline’s ability to add more flights.

Why boarding planes is – and likely will remain – inefficient

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