Several readers have written to me recently to suggest that I stop writing about airline "on-time" statistics.
As one woman put it, "If you put pressure on the airlines to establish good 'on-time' ratings, they might fly when they shouldn't, and that would be dangerous. It seems imprudent to put so much emphasis on an airline's record for promptness that its record for safety is jeopardized."
Robert J. Serling, former aviation editor for United Press International, filed what was probably the most knowledgeable comment on the matter.
"The CAB should have its pants kicked for ever starting this whole on-time mess," Bob wrote. There simply are too many variable involved in any given flight's ability to depart or arrive on schedule - whether exactly on time or within 15 minutes of posted times or any other standard.
Weather, gate congestion, mechanical troubles - these are all factors over which an airline has little or no control. A carrier which boasts about consistent on-time performance may well be just plain lucky: conversely, one that encounters above-average delay may be guilty of nothing more than prudence and caution.
"All airline schedules are subject to a domino effect. A single delayed flight can set off a chain reaction throughout an entire route system.
"The airlines operate some 13,000 flights daily. Overall, their schedule reliability is admirable. As a frequent air traveler, I'm perfectly happy with their performance, and resent government and consumer-group pressure to require 'report cards' or even some form of punishment for not living up to arbitrary yardsticks which could be potentially harmful.
"I know one case in which an airline captain delayed his landing because of a severe thunderstorm in the vicinity of the airport. When he finally landed, about 30 minutes late, a stewardess handed him a note from a passenger that said, 'Thanks to your incompetence, I missed my connecting flight.'
"I was truly glad you came through the surgery in good shape, Bill. My brother Rod died during a similar operation but I have never regretted that he 'went for broke' in having it done. I know he wanted it that way."
Thank you, Bob. There is no denying that emphasis on piling up a good on-time record poses the risk that, on occasion, passengers will be endangered by somebody who is more concerned with getting a good "report card" than with safety. This is a risk I would not care to have thrust upon me, nor would I advocate that others be exposed to it.
However, it seems to me that safety and the monitoring of airline performance are not incompatible concepts. Surely it can be agreed that any flight delayed or canceled because of safety precautions should not be counted in on-time tabulations. This would leave the airlines free to continue to put safety first, without penalty - and at the same time permit the government to monitor airline performance, and to compare that performance to airline schedules and advertising claims.
Any nation that can put a man on the moon can surely work out sensible rules for the operation of its airline industry.