When it comes to airlines there are plenty of perfectly obvious reasons to be angry and resentful -- the sneaky fees, shrinking bathrooms, and endless scandals, from dead puppies to beaten up grandfathers, constantly competing with each other for the crown of dumbest self-inflicted wound.

But according to an annoying if enlightening new study out of The Kellogg School, there is actually one more hidden reason to hate airlines, one that first appears as a rare blip of positive news about air travel.

Here's why you shouldn't cheer the next time your flight arrives early.

If I told you more domestic flights are arriving early these days you'd probably cheer the news. That's natural. Passengers love to hear they're getting to their destination a bit earlier than planned.

The problem is that airlines have noticed this fact too, but rather than, say, actually make their flights run run more smoothly, they've instead decided to manipulate their time tables to make it appear flights are early when, in fact, the original "arrival time" was just an inflated fiction.

For the study the researchers analyzed data on 43 million domestic U.S. flights over the last 20 years. "They discover that published flight times--the flight duration that consumers see when they shop for plane tickets--increased 8.1 percent between 1997 and 2017, amounting to an additional 341 million passenger hours," reports Kellogg Insight.

No, that's not because planes have somehow managed to be the only type of technology out there that is getting slower over time.

"Rather, nearly half of the additional time comes from airlines strategically padding their schedules. Late planes are bad for business--so, by adding time to their predicted flight lengths, airlines can increase the odds that their planes will arrive on time," the study concluded. 

Well, that's doubly annoying.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but just to underline, that's super annoying for two reasons.

Not only did an exhaustive analysis of millions of records from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that flight times have gotten longer since the 90s, which is annoying enough. It also found that for at least half the increase wasn't due to any naturally occurring reason, such as more operational hiccups. (Though passengers these days do spend slightly longer sitting on the tarmac thanks to more congested airports).

Nope, airlines just made flight times longer to hoodwink you into hating them less.

How can airlines get away with a move that annoying? Shouldn't customers just vote with their feet and choose a competitor with a shorter flight? In theory yes, but the study found that in practice a lack of competition often makes that impossible.

"Due to bankruptcies and mergers, there are fewer large U.S. airlines today than in 1997. So airlines today may feel less competitive pressure to offer shorter flight times," explains Kellogg Insight.

The lesson here, yet again, is to distrust airlines, especially ones enthusiastically touting their "on time" flights. Their planes might get to their destinations before their posted arrival times, sure, but often that's really nothing to cheer about.

"It's not really about reliability. If airlines really wanted to improve reliability, they'd focus their efforts on enhancing their operations. What our study shows is that this is not the case. What they're going for instead is the easier--and cheaper--option of schedule padding," concludes study co-author Jan Van Mieghem.

Published on: Nov 27, 2018
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