Can an Airline Pilot Really Make Up Time During a Flight?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 22 2011 3:56 PM

Can an Airline Pilot Really “Make Up” Time During a Flight?

is it just a way of calming passengers?

Pilots in cockpit.
What do pilots really mean when they say they'll make up time in the air?

Pilots in cockpit by Comstock/Thinkstock Images.

With the marked increase in air travel that accompanies Thanksgiving week, there are bound to be delays—meteorologists are already warning that wind and rain in the Northeast hub areas could pose problems. Once you finally get off the ground, there’s always the hope that the pilot will announce that he will try to make up some time. But wait—if pilots can really make a trip go faster, why don’t they always do it? Can they really shave some time off a flight when they feel like it?

Yes, though to a very limited extent. Pilots almost never do the in-flight equivalent of slamming on the gas pedal. Each commercial jet has a Flight Management System (FMS) that calculates its most efficient air speed given certain variables such as the number of passengers aboard and the cruising altitude. If a pilot wanted to accelerate past this sweet spot of efficiency, even by a little bit, he could end up burning substantially more fuel and adding thousands of dollars to the overall flight expense. So while it’s theoretically possible for a pilot to gas it, that only happens under special circumstances, almost always under direction from a superior, such as when air traffic control needs to clear up a scheduling conflict.

It’s far more often the case that a pilot will try to make up some time by means of a minor rerouting. If a plane is running late, the pilot can ask the control tower for permission to take a shortcut (due to the mapping of standard “airways,” many flights don’t follow a straight line to their destination); however, the availability of this option depends on where the plane is going, as well as upon congestion. Certain routes—for example, between Newark and Atlanta—are already so direct that shortcuts don’t exist. For special holiday periods like Thanksgiving, the FAA does sometimes open otherwise restricted military airspace, allowing for more direct or less congested routes between certain locations.

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Of course, weather is the most important factor affecting flight times. If a plane is facing major headwinds, there’s a little a pilot can do aside from exploring slightly different altitudes where the weather may be calmer. On the other hand, tailwinds obviously increase speed for free and so pilots can seek these out to help make up time. However, as with adjusting course, changing altitude depends on traffic congestion. (Aircraft must maintain a certain vertical distance from one another in the airways.) While you might expect your pilot to always try for a faster flight, being fast can also have its consequences: If a flight arrives too early in its scheduled window, the plane ends up in a holding pattern above the airport anyway.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Daniel Pope, certified pilot of Boeing 707s.

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.

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