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United Airlines Willing to Delay Flights for Late-Running Passengers

It’s the airport equivalent of road rage: You race to your gate on a tight connection to see the door shut and your plane inching backwards.

One reason gate agents are so strict about that closed door is an airline metric called “D-0” (D-zero), which designates a flight that departs at exactly the scheduled time. The industry—and government regulators—rigorously monitor this metric to see which carriers operate reliably and which don’t.

Aiming to alleviate at least some of this pain, United Continental Holdings Inc. is testing a program called “Dynamic D-0” at its Denver hub to empower gate agents to delay a departure to accommodate customers and employees rushing to a connecting flight.

The system “tells an employee, tells customers, ‘Hey, here’s five or six customers that are coming to this connection; they’re going to be five minutes late, but we know we can make up the time in flight on this particular flight,’” United President Scott Kirby said Tuesday at an investor conference. “Sometimes we can’t, and we don’t hold the airplane.”

Typically, about a quarter of United’s flights arrive 10 or more minutes early, meaning they can make up a slight departure delay in transit. The new software examines flights in this group and coordinates the data with United’s connecting passenger roster as a way to decide which departures can be allowed to slip. United’s operations center then identifies the flights to hold and alerts gate agents.

The testing has saved thousands of connecting passengers from missing a flight, Kirby said. The new system’s flight holds are likely to have “minimal impact on performance as the flights are expected to arrive on time, even with the hold,” United spokeswoman Erin Benson said. United will expand the automation to other large airports later this year, and eventually use it on all of its flights, mainline and regional, worldwide.

Punctual departures have become far more critical as U.S. airlines work to boost their schedule reliability, an attribute that such carriers as Delta Air Lines Inc. and Spirit Airlines Inc. have increasingly touted as a way to win customers. Industrywide, 79.1 percent of U.S. airline flights arrived on time last year through November, the latest month for which federal statistics are available.

The world’s largest carrier, American Airlines Group Inc., has focused zealously on its D-0 performance after struggling with delayed flights for more than a year.

The company, which ranked seventh of 10 carriers for on-time flying last year (77.3 percent) has set a D-0 target of 69.7 percent for 2019. Delays of several minutes for one flight can ripple through the hub-and-spoke carrier’s system, jeopardizing connecting operations later in the day, said Ross Feinstein, an American spokesman.

Some American pilots and gate agents have complained that the airline’s push to improve its D-0 rate has left passengers standing at gates and, in some cases, bags belonging to those who made it aboard not loaded onto an aircraft.

“One minute late off the gate being a failure is a setup for a pressure cooker that does not serve our passengers well,” said Dennis Tajer, an American captain and spokesman for the airline’s pilots union. “We’ve seen it before, where we left passengers behind at the gate just to get off the gate on time.”

Feinstein said those left at gates are usually American employees who are flying for free.

Chicago-based United, which was in sixth place through November (77.9 percent), has made better on-time flight performance a crucial aspect of its effort to lure back customers lost during its rocky merger with Continental.