Perverse incentives Dep’t

Scoring airlines on on-time departures and not on missed connections discourages holding connecting flights. Why hasn’t that occurred to someone at the FAA?

When the FAA started publishing airlines’ on-time statistics, that seemed like a good idea, though even at the time it occurred to me that I’d rather know about on-time arrivals rather than on-time departures and that I’d rather know the mean (and perhaps the variance) of the number of minutes late rather than the absolute number of flights that were “late” rather than “on time.”

But today I have five hours in scenic Denver International Airport to reflect on a problem with on-time reporting: there’s no parallel reporting for missed connections. Therefore, when a flight connecting to other flights is late, the airline has a strong incentive not to hold the ongoing flights in order to let the passengers catch up.

I figured out that problem shortly after a completely unapologetic United Express check-in clerk told me that my race from my United Airlines LA-Denver flight (which arrived an hour behind schedule) to my United Express Denver-Bozeman flight had gotten me to the gate nine minutes before the scheduled departure time, and that the door to the aircraft had been closed promptly at ten minutes before scheduled departure.

That seems like a problem the FAA might want to work on. Again, a statistic for missed connections would do the trick, though changing from an on-time percentage to a mean-minutes-late would also reduce the disincentive to wait a few minutes so passengers don’t miss their flights.

In general, the performance of every United employee I dealt with today convinced me that the airline has identified its basic strategic problem as an excess of customers; I plan to do what I can to help solve that problem. (This after ten years of using United as my primary airline; I’m a “Premier Executive” frequent flyer, which means >50,000 actual air miles per year.)

1. The late departure from L.A. started with a late incoming flight but consisted mostly of waiting for some maintenance paperwork. Every five minutes, the pilot came on, apologized, and said that we’d be taking off in five more minutes.

2. The flight crew announced that the delay had been phoned ahead to Denver, and that there would be an attempt to hold connecting flights. The United Express ground folks said that no such call had been made, that no such call was ever made, and that in any case they had a policy of not holding connecting flights even by as much as a minute.

3. In fact and in truth, according to a voicemail delivered to my home phone, United had rebooked me from my 2:35 flight to an 8:15 flight while my LA-Denver plane was still in the air. I assume that means that, even if I’d sprinted harder and caught the flight, my bags would have missed it.

4. No one in Denver offered any sort of compensation: not a meal, not a guest pass to the Red Carpet Club, nothing.

5. When I asked the Customer Relations superviser in Denver whom I could talk to, he said he could give me the phone number to the CEO’s office in Chicago. In fact, it was the “customer service” voice-mail jail.

6. The extra-special customer service number for Premier Executive frequent fliers also turned out to be the CSVMJ.

7. On the fifth phone call, someone finally suggested they might send me a flight voucher for $100. Whoopee.

As I say, I’m angry enough to switch to American. Of course, I’ve been flying United all these years because American treated me with similar indifference. Tell me again about the “service economy” and how sorry we should feel for the poor airlines?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: