Last night my Continental flight arrived in Houston about half an hour early. Which normally is a great thing.
Except that my partner was picking me up at the airport, and wasn't coming from home, so when I sent him a text message to let him know that I was on the ground, he had to rush to the car and drive up to the airport from downtown Houston (about 20 miles away).
This happens all the time; your flight is late, but you land early. Yes, sometimes it's great tailwinds. But it's pretty obvious that they are padding the schedule because otherwise, 95% of the flights would be late.
(And I should be clear - I'm not whining. I spent the extra ground time sitting outside enjoying a perfect spring evening, which is lovely after you've been in a place with sub-zero night temperatures. Yes, it was nicer than spending that time on a plane.)
Under-promising and over-delivering can be a very smart thing to do, because beating expectations always makes customers happy. The problem is that if you do it all the time, customers catch on to the scam. And sometimes over-delivering isn't helpful.
Going back to flight schedules: arriving early is annoying if somebody on the ground is planning his schedule to pick you up. It's mildly annoying if you've decided to watch a 40 minute video on your iPod because you've got 60 minutes left in your flight, but then you land 30 minutes later. And many of us just like to know what's going to happen next, whether it's ideal or irritating.
I assume that airports know that this is all a scam: they've got to organize facilities and ground crews to receive all those planes coming in, so they must know the real story.
All of this leaves me thinking, "Any expectation Continental sets is a ploy to improve their on-time figures." That annoys me simply because I like to do business with people who are honest with me. And it sets a new expectation: if you don't over-deliver, you've failed. I expect every Continental flight to land early, because I know the scheduled duration of the flight is a lie. If they just meet their schedule, they were late.
Find a small way to over-deliver: the staff was extra nice! The seat was actually designed for an adult human being! (Don't hold your breath.) Over-deliver now and then, and you'll make customers happy.
But do it all the time, and customers just catch on, stop believing your promises, and get jaded.