More than half a decade after the issue of airlines inflating flight durations between two airports to bolster their on-time performance was first brought to the fore, the issue is still one of the key concerns underscored when it comes to satisfaction of consumers with airlines. Notwithstanding the initial plans of the aviation regulator to deal with the problem of non-uniform block times discussed in 2011, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture, in its report tabled in Parliament earlier this month on issues related to improving consumers’ satisfaction of airlines pointed out the “erroneous” practice of “non-uniform block time” being followed by certain airlines and recommended all the carriers to adhere to uniform block times.
Block time is the duration taken by an aircraft to taxi-out to the runway of its origin airport, actual flying time, and the time taken to taxi to the arrival gate of its destination airport. According to a senior government official, discrepancies pertaining to different airlines setting different block times for same routes existed on a large scale for hundreds of different routes in the country. Following a probe last year, the civil aviation ministry, in November, started rationalising of block times and match them to arrival and departure slots to reduce delays.
“The Committee notes that due to ‘non-uniform block time’, the passengers often have to spend more time on board the aircraft. The practice of ‘non-uniform block time’ is obviously not desirable. The Committee, therefore, recommends that all the airlines may follow uniform block time. The Committee also recommends that a coordinated effort should be made by Air Traffic Control, Airports Authority of India, Airport operators and Airlines for maintaining punctuality in air services,” the Parliamentary Standing Committee said in its report.
However, a random check done on Google flights for available non-stop flights on the Delhi-Mumbai sector on February 10 showed flying times varying across airlines. The duration of non-stop Delhi-Mumbai flights for different airlines ranged between 2 hours to 2 hours 20 minutes.
An official at the Airports Authority of India (AAI), which provides the Air Traffic Control services, pointed out that some airlines followed the practice of announcing longer block times and turned up before time, effectively portraying that they are arriving before time. However, this had a cascading effect on the other aircraft that are scheduled to land on a particular time slot. Following this, the ATC was directed to only allow aircraft to land as per landing slot time cleared prior to the flight. This would force the aircraft to hover around its destination unnecessarily.
Back in 2011, the DGCA planned to stipulate flight duration between two airports to prevent airlines from issuing different block times for the same route. However, the plan gathered less traction owing to the fact raised by several aviation experts suggesting that factors such as differing wind conditions such as speeds and directions would cause unplanned delays in flight times. This factor assumes particular significance during winters, when wind conditions are poor and inordinate delays also occur on account of low-visibility procedures being deployed at airports due to fog.
In its report, the House Panel also noted: “The Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation informed the Committee that the ‘block time’ is the time usually the aircrafts take to fly a particular sector but many airlines are not following it. But the aircrafts are permitted to use the “non-uniform block time” i.e. long duration flying time (more time in air) to cover a particular sector due to lack of slots at the airports. They may hover around the destination stations for some time. The non-uniform block time i.e. longer duration travel time may be shown in the flight schedules but the passengers may not be aware of the nitty-gritties involved and they are made to believe that the flight is arriving before time. The Government has informed the Committee that they are aware of the wrong practice and that they are instructing all the airlines to follow uniform block time”.
The block times is also considered to be a function of compensation paid to flyers in case of delay. If a flight is cancelled and the passengers are not informed at least two weeks before the schedule, the passengers are entitled to a compensation. This is Rs 5,000 or booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less for flights having a block time of up to and including 1 hour; Rs 7,500 or booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less for flights having block time of more than 1 hour and upto and including 02 hours; and Rs 10,000 or booked one-way basic fare plus airline fuel charge, whichever is less for flights having a block time of more than 2 hours.