Can pilots really make up time in the air?

Can pilots really make up time in the air? © Michael Probst, AP An airplane lands at Frankfurt Airport in Germany on Aug. 31, 2017. Q: When the pilot says they are going to try to "make up some time" en route to a destination, how is that done? Do they fly faster than cruising speed? Take a different approach/route?      

— submitted by reader Scott, Charlotte, N.C.

A: Working with air-traffic control to shorten the route is usually the best way to “make up time.” Many flights do not use the most direct line between two airports because of congestion and air-traffic control routing, so there may be opportunities to reduce distance.

Most jets cruise near their maximum speed, so there’s little available speed in reserve to lower the overall flight time.

Q: What factors allow a flight to arrive earlier than scheduled?         

— Raymie, Honolulu

A: The two most significant factors for getting to your destination ahead of schedule are the wind direction/velocity (high tail winds mean faster groundspeed and reduced flight time) and the taxi time (shorter than planned taxi time means early arrival).

Flight planning looks for the best route for the wind. Taxi time is a function of the traffic at the departure airport.

Q: My flight from Reagan National to Hartford Bradley was delayed. When we finally took off, the pilot told us the flying time would be 35 minutes. The original flight time was 65 minutes. How do you reduce the flight time by that much?

— Bill, Connecticut

A: The initial flight time included the expected taxi time. This can be a significant amount of time. In your example, there was a 30-minute taxi time built into the flight to keep it on time based on history.

Q: Last trip from London to Philadelphia, I arrived an hour and 20 minutes early.  Does this happen very often?

— Robert, Bangor, Maine

A: It happens when the wind is less than forecast when flying westbound, where prevailing headwinds usually lower groundspeed. That happens more often during the summer than in winter.

Have a question about flying? Send it to [email protected]

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.

WATCH: Why Airlines Often Don't Seem To Provide Accurate Flight Times (Provided by GeoBeats)

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