The poor on-time performance statistics of gulf carriers don’t match their highly-praised brand personas characterized by luxurious suites, buying large stakes in other airlines, and forging bold partnerships in sports and fashion.

Etihad Airways, Emirates, and Qatar Airways consistently have monthly on-time performance records of below 80%, based on FlightStats data, as they’re currently ensnarled in an Open Skies debate for the funding they receive from oil-rich governments in the UAE and Qatar.

“When you look at them, they tout this very high level of service and have won awards yet they perform very badly with on-time performance,” said Jim Hetzel, VP of business development at FlightStats. “I think what you’ll notice is that it’s the type of routes causing them this. On-time performance is directly correlated to overall performance to duration of trip. The long-haul flights are the bread and butter of their routes.”

“When you get into longer-haul routes, on-time performance is a lower priority in terms of overall service. But if you’re in the states traveling between New York and Chicago, it’s very important to be on-time. When you’re traveling from Dubai to either Sydney or LA, it’s probably less important and creature comforts and amenities become more important.”

FlightStat’s considers a flight’s departure on-time if it departs within 15 minutes of scheduled departure and an arrival is considered on-time if a flight arrives within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival.

On-Time Performance Percentages and Average Delay Times for Select Months for Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways

AirlineFor February 2014For July 2014For November 2014For January 2015
Emirates70.06%, Avg. Delay 53.99 Minutes83.77%, Avg. Delay 37.09 Minutes81.61%, Avg. Delay 33.86 Minutes66.15%, Avg. Delay 159.23 Minutes
Etihad Airways65.26%, Avg. Delay 43.11 Minutes49.53%, Avg. Delay 43.96 Minutes69.01%, Avg. Delay 51.99 Minutes49.13%, Avg. Delay 82.79 Minutes
Qatar Airways81.69%, Avg. Delay 49.46 Minutes81.41%, Avg. Delay 43.5 Minutes88.46%, Avg. Delay 53.57 Minutes81.17%, Avg. Delay 61.13 Minutes

Source: FlightStats

What’s Causing the Delays and Late Arrivals?

Aviation experts can’t pinpoint exactly what’s causing the Gulf carriers’ lack of punctuality, instead creating a cocktail of reasons for why it’s happening. There’s consensus around the connecting traffic at the three carriers’ hubs as a possible factor and Dubai International Airport, for example, told us connecting traffic accounts for 53% of all traffic at the airport for all carriers while origin to destination flights account for 47% of the airport’s traffic.

Some speculate it could be from the Gulf carriers’ exceptional service standards of focusing on the quality of the flight experience rather than worrying about flights leaving on-time. Others are more skeptical or offer varying opinions.

Below are responses from some analysts Skift spoke to:

Amanda Finch, VP business development at FlightStats, specializes in Middle East/Africa: They could be holding flights for first class passengers who are connecting on an Emirates, Etihad or Qatar Airways flight from another flight. The Middle East market is still very focused on service. On-time performance isn’t something Middle East and African carriers are as concerned with, given sanctions and security checkpoints. To these guys, it’s about service, their number one priority is that passengers have an incredible flight and incredible service.

I was on a Delta Air Lines flight from Dubai to Atlanta a couple months back and the flight was delayed by two hours because of the numerous security checkpoints we had to go through in Dubai. There are sanctions affecting any carrier flying into the U.S and I think U.S. carriers put a lot more time into on-time performance than international carriers.

Robert Mann, airline industry analyst: It’s an interesting question, given how flights- particularly delays of an hour or longer- tend to undermine passenger perception of every other aspect of airline service rating. That’s been my experience working at American Airlines, Pan Am, TWA and consulting for more than two-dozen other major and regional carriers. If a flight is late, the airport experience, flight attendants, in-flight entertainment and baggage service are always rated worse than an on-time flight.

The answer may turn on which flights and markets are delayed, what type of passenger is on the delayed flights, and whether the delays result in interrupted trips. For example, digging into Hawaiian Airlines’ numbers one finds that their huge number and share of on-time inter-island flights masks relatively poor on-time performance of mainland and [transpacific] flights.

For the Gulf carriers, I would surmise that staying on-time in high profile business markets ensuring hub transfers is important to cultivating the desired image, even if the bulk of passengers are on origin to destination flights to markets on the Indian subcontinent where the primary purpose of travel is labor market arbitrage and on-time is not paramount. Much of the economy traffic to and from Gulf and Indian subcontinent, Africa and Asia is laborers working on contracts in the Gulf i.e. building World Cup stadiums, airports, infrastructure, office and residential structures, etc.

Flights that arrive late to an airport and have tight turns, or those that arrive late to the hub and have transit times governed by connecting bag and cargo services often depart late. These flights can but do not always remain delayed by scheduled time of arrival. Pilots can speed up slightly en route (especially on long-hauls) in order to make-up time, though not all do, some just fly the flight plan.

John Grant, executive vice president at OAG: After some analysis, it would seem that some of the Indian airports are challenging. The thing to remember though is that for all three airlines, their major business is connecting traffic . The important thing for them is to make sure the passenger makes their connection so, sometimes, if there are scheduled lengthy layovers being 30 minutes late isn’t an issue, especially if you want to finish watching a film!

Thomas Saquer, airline analyst at Frost & Sullivan: I would think that [Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways] do operate mainly on long-haul routes thus passengers are a little more willing to accept a bit of delay. A 30-minute delay on a 10-hour flight is not bothering passengers as much as a 15-minute delay on a one-hour flight. As a result, we might hear less complaint on the long-haul flights particularly if the services on board are excellent.

Gulf Carriers’ Responses

Skift reached out to the three carriers several times for comment regarding their on-time performance statistics and as of publication only Etihad has provided a response.

What’s interesting is Etihad’s justification for its late and delayed flights completely diverges from most of the possible reasons analysts told us:

Etihad Airways spokesperson: Our on-time performance has been affected by the closure of the Southern runway at Abu Dhabi International Airport in February 2014 due to structural modifications and a major refurbishment required in preparation for the arrival of Etihad Airways’ first A380 aircraft in December, and the building of the under-runway tunnel providing direct road access to the new midfield terminal due for completion in July 2017.

The runway was closed [from February 2014 to November 2014] and contributed to significant delays to the airline’s day-to-day operations due to congestion of the aircraft arriving and departing the hub and the increased amount of time required for aircraft landing or taking off. Taxiing between the runway and the gate or a remote parking stand was also affected.

Seasonality also made a big impact, with frequent bouts of severe fog causing major operational disruption, resulting in some flights being cancelled and widespread delays across our network during the spring and autumn months.

Another factor is constraints at Abu Dhabi International Airport, which has become increasingly busy as it attracts new airlines and as Etihad Airways, its main customer, continues to expand its global operations. Restrictions or closure of regional airspace is another key factor effecting on-time performance as Etihad Airways’ flights are often routed through air corridors that either extend flight times or cause delay due to congestion when avoiding conflict zones and restricted airspace.

Inconsistency?

The reopening of Abu Dhabi International Airport’s second runway hasn’t helped matters much in Etihad’s case as monthly on-time performance percentages still struggle to break 70%.

In January 2015 only 49% of Etihad’s flights were considered on-time, according to FlightStats, and last month about 64% of flights were on-time though FlightStats only tracked 77% of the airline’s flights.

“With these particular carriers we are relying on the secondary sources which are primarily GDS platforms (i.e. Sabre, Amadeus and similar), airport databases and civil aviation authorities (i.e. FAA) which is giving us flight detail coverage of 80% to 97%,” said Hetzel.

“That said we are encountering some flight detail gaps in these sources which is reflected in the the less than 100% tracked numbers. We are continually improving coverage sources and will be implementing a direct connection with one of the three carriers which will raise coverage significantly. We are actively pursuing direct connections with the other carriers as well.”

Hetzel couldn’t disclose which of the three carriers FlightStats is working to establish a direct connection with. Etihad’s official on-time percentage for February is about six percentage points higher than FlightStat’s number.

“We can also report that on-time performance has improved in 2015 and while January was low due to a particularly severe fog season, February finished at 70% and March month-to-date is currently at 75%,” said Etihad’s spokesperson.

Turkish Airlines, although not a Gulf carrier, also frequently shares much of the same airspace as Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar Airways and has consistently returned monthly on-time percentages below 80% during the past year as well.

“According to our reports our [on-time performance percentage] for January is 75%,” said Merve Oruc, a spokesperson for Turkish Airlines. “In other words, one out of every four Turkish Airlines flights were late and/or delayed in January 2015.”

Breakdown by Busiest Routes

The inconsistencies aside, adding more time onto the total flight time might make the difference and help Gulf carriers avoid their on-time failures. Below are three charts OAG furnished for Skift detailing the full-year 2014 on-time performances of the three carriers on their busiest routes from their hub airports to another airport.

Emirates seems to perform better along its Asian routes than American or European routes and this pattern also plays out with the other two airlines. In the U.S. Emirates does the worst at New York’s JFK Airport (44.87%), more than 30 percentage points lower than Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (75.29%) and Washington, D.C.’s Dulles Airport (78.37%).

Etihad’s on-time performance at Los Angeles International Airport is a pathetic 12.5%, by far the worst performing busiest route of the three airlines and for both Etihad and Qatar Airways their American routes are among their worst for on-time performance.

The three carriers’ performances at major business hubs such as New York, London, Paris and Seoul, for example, show percentages below 70% and regardless of superior service standards global business prefers to be done on-time or ahead of schedule.

Emirates Full-Year 2014 On-Time Performance Percentages for Arrivals at Global Airports from Dubai International Airport

Airport% On-Time Performance
New York JFK44.87%
Toronto Pearson International49.68%
Beijing Capital International62.89%
Paris Charles de Gaulle64.10%
Mumbai International64.23%
London Heathrow65.01%
Seoul Incheon Interntational66.48%
Seattle-Tacoma International69.62%
San Francisco International70.65%
Los Angeles International71.87%
Amsterdam Schiphol74.76%
Istanbul Ataturk74.89%
Chicago O’Hare75.29%
Hong Kong International76.56%
Dubai International76.77%
Singapore Changi77.39%
Washington Dulles78.37%
Tokyo Narita International78.40%
Delhi Indira Gandhi International80.42%

Etihad Airways Full-Year 2014 On-Time Performance Percentages for Arrivals at Global Airports from Abu Dhabi International Airport

Airport% On-Time Performance
Los Angeles International12.50%
San Francisco International34.04%
Chicago O’Hare43.10%
Toronto Pearson International48.08%
Paris Charles de Gaulle49.34%
Beijing Capital International49.65%
Shanghai Pudong International52.15%
Frankfurt International52.75%
Johanesburg O.R. Tambo International52.86%
Rome Fiumicino53.57%
New York JFK53.84%
Amsterdam Schiphol57.21%
London Heathrow58.14%
Delhi Indira Gandhi International63.05%
Singapore Changi64.41%
Seoul Incheon International69.31%
Istanbul Ataturk70.56%
Tokyo Narita International72.20%
Washington Dulles75.25%

Qatar Airways Full-Year 2014 On-Time Performance Percentages for Arrivals at Global Airports from Hamad International Airport

Airport% On-Time Performance
Chicago O’Hare50.00%
Shanghai Pudong International52.12%
Washington Dulles52.87%
New York JFK53.92%
Philadelphia International67.50%
Frankfurt International67.75%
Houston George Bush Intercontinental70.83%
London Heathrow71.02%
Kuala Lumpur International72.29%
Hong Kong International74.83%
Paris Charles de Gaulle75.00%
Bejing Capital International75.47%
Singapore Changi75.54%
Johanesburg O.R. Tambo International75.75%
Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International77.75%
Cape Town International78.91%
Mumbai International79.68%
Zurich International79.92%
Istanbul Ataturk80.98%

Source: OAG

Photo Credit: Business class seating on Emirates. Emirates