As passengers flip through magazines at the airport gate while waiting to board, a tightly orchestrated sequence of events is underway behind the scenes to prepare newly arrived planes for takeoff. Within a minute of landing, Alaska Airlines cabin doors are opening. JetBlue Airways executives are donning plastic gloves to help flight crews pick up trash, and American Airlines baggage handlers are tracking luggage using handheld devices.
Elsewhere, Southwest Airlines operations supervisors are poring over the timing of every flight, tweaking locations for crew changes and scheduled maintenance.
The stakes are high. Late flights cost customers, and money. With the margin between profits and losses so thin in the postrecession economy, many airlines are paying more attention to punctuality ,and the stepped-up efforts are showing results.
During the first 10 months of 2012, on-time arrival rates at US airports were the highest they have been since 2003, with 82 percent of flights landing within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, according to the Department of Transportation. Arrival performance has improved partly because airlines operate fewer flights than they used to, but reduced passenger capacity has created new complications. Crews now routinely deal with crowded flights and more passengers hauling carry-on luggage, which can slow boarding. Anyone who has navigated cabin aisles crowded with passengers jamming belongings into overhead bins knows what that is like.
On-time performance has become something of a science, industry specialists say. Airlines “look at every flight, and if there is a flight that is delayed, they study why,’’ said Keith Gerr of FlightStats Inc., a flight information publisher based in Portland, Ore.
JetBlue Airways, the largest carrier at Logan International Airport in Boston, operates three-quarters of its flights in the congested Northeast corridor, and it is often near the bottom of the pack for on-time performance, a standing it is working to change.
The airline recently achieved a seemingly modest goal, shaving four minutes off each trip. To make that happen, it no longer requires every passenger to be seated before the cabin door closes. This allows the jet bridge to be disconnected from the plane while flight attendants make their final checks.
By conserving a few minutes on each of its 750 daily flights, JetBlue has been able to add another plane to its daily schedule, said Ian Deason, the company’s director of airport operations in Boston. It has also helped the airline boost its on-time arrival percentage from 71 percent in the first 10 months of 2011 — the worst showing in the Department of Transportation’s ranking of 16 carriers — to nearly 80 percent in the same time period this year.
“It is a game of 10 seconds here, 30 seconds here,’’ Deason said.
On several recent early-morning JetBlue flights between Boston and Newark, the flight crew had about 40 minutes between each turnaround to get passengers off, clean and restock the plane, and get the next group ready for take-off. To speed things along, the airline has every employee onboard start sprucing up as passengers disembark. That includes everyone from flight attendants to pilots to chief executive David Barger, if he happens to be traveling that day.
“Once you get behind, you never catch up,’’ said pilot Dave Carraro.
“It’s a domino effect for the rest of the day,’’ added flight attendant Tara McCarthy.
Passengers can also inadvertently disrupt the flow. At Newark Liberty International Airport Tuesday morning, a JetBlue gate agent noticed a woman with a dog had a boarding pass for a connection on Cape Air, which generally only allows one pet per plane. Agents looked up the passenger’s booking information, double-checked Cape Air’s policy, and made a few phone calls, keeping the cabin door open until they were satisfied everything was in order.
At Logan, the Massachusetts Port Authority has made several modifications in the past two years to help airlines operate more efficiently. For instance, a taxiway has been added between the two busiest parallel runways, allowing planes to get to the takeoff area more quickly. Massport also designated more places for planes to wait for clearance from the tower, increasing the number that can proceed to the runway at once.
Alaska Airlines is something of a model for other carriers, winning awards in 2010 and 2011 for the best on-time performance among major North American carriers.
To maintain that record, the company enforces a rigorous set of rules. Ramp workers must be in position 10 minutes before an arrival, ready to unload bags and load up the next flight. One minute after the plane taxis to the gate, a mechanic arrives and the passenger door opens. At the five-minute mark, the cleaning crew has to be on the jet bridge. If the bags are not on the carousel in 20 minutes, every passenger receives a $20 voucher.
There are also on-time incentives for Alaska Airlines employees. For every month the carrier hits its goals, each of its 10,000 employees gets $50.
“Missed connections cost a lot of money; putting people up in hotels costs a lot of money,’’ said Ben Minicucci, chief operating officer for Alaska Airlines.
Besides, he added, “your brand takes a bruising’’ if it isn’t reliable.
Several airlines have been concentrating on improving baggage procedures to save time. American Airlines upgraded the hand-held devices baggage handlers use to keep track of luggage. When overhead bins start filling up on a Delta Air Lines flight, gate agents walk down the ramp as passengers board and check in carry-on bags using computers near the plane’s door.
American and other airlines have also given passengers the option to pay a fee to board early, which reduces congestion on the jet bridge. Japan Airlines has started meeting with rail and bus companies to learn about measures they take to deliver passengers on time. Southwest Airlines put a recovery plan in place for flights affected by weather or mechanical problems, isolating delays to routes with the least overall impact on passengers.
As with most airlines, Southwest keeps tabs on chronically late flights. One on the watch list is Flight 2460, a 7:45 p.m. Nashville-Austin route that was 37 minutes late on average. The airline traced the major cause of the delay back to much earlier in the day in Houston, where planes are swapped out of the system to undergo scheduled overnight maintenance. The operations center is now instructed to avoid using planes on the route that need such routine upkeep in hope of bettering arrival times.
Steve Hozdulick, senior director of operational performance at Southwest, has a long list of reasons why being timely matters so much: It reduces labor costs, puts crews in the proper locations, keeps connections flowing, and delivers bags more quickly.
In short, he said, “It’s the foundation for the improvement of everything that you do.’’