Tarmac-delay rule gives air travelers more respect

by Christopher Elliott on September 29, 2010

If you’re afraid of being trapped in a parked plane on your next trip, stop worrying.

Only three flights were delayed more than three hours in July, the latest month reported by the Transportation Department. All the incidents happened on the evening of July 23, when a line of “very nasty” thunderstorms swept through Chicago, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

“Unfortunately, the way the weather pattern was that day, we couldn’t park [the planes] on a gate,” she added. “The ramp was closed. Our passengers were given a snack and water, and our crew tried to keep them as comfortable as possible while waiting.”

The three American Eagle regional jets bound for Knoxville, Tenn., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Baltimore were on “hold” while waiting for the weather to clear. The government is investigating the circumstances of those delays but hasn’t issued any fines.

It’s been almost a year since passenger-rights activists held a “stakeholders” meeting in Washington to denounce tarmac delays and call for new rules to end them. And it’s been more than four months since the Transportation Department enacted a rule requiring airlines to allow passengers to deplane within three hours, with exceptions for safety or security. Airlines face a maximum fine of $27,500 per passenger for overstaying that limit.

But only in reviewing the effectiveness of the new tarmac-delay rule has the real problem – and the solution – become apparent. It wasn’t these isolated but maddening delays, but how airlines regarded them, that was troublesome. Regulators looked past the rhetoric of the moment, ignored the fact that this was a small issue and envisioned a big solution: With a patchwork of new rules, they believed, they could encourage airlines to think of their customers in a different, and maybe better, way.

Three full months of data are now available for review. In June, only three flights were delayed more than three hours, also in Chicago, and also because of thunderstorms. Those planes belonged to United Airlines, which said that it couldn’t safely unload passengers within the time limit. In May, only one flight exceeded the three-hour limit. And the government hasn’t fined any airlines for violating the three-hour rule in May or June.

“As more time passes, it’s becoming clear that the sky is not falling on airlines or their customers over the three-hour tarmac-delay rule,” said Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, who attended the stakeholders meeting last year. “If anything, there are likely new efficiencies and cost savings made possible by complying with the new rule as airlines modify schedules, processes and systems.”

But tarmac delays weren’t really a crisis before the rule went into effect; they were a shameful but exceedingly rare event. In July 2009, only 161 of 580,134 flights were delayed by more than three hours, or 0.028 percent of the total flights that month, according to the government. In June 2009, it was 0.049 percent, and in May it was 0.0064 percent.

Yet for reasons that aren’t clear to the casual observer, tarmac delays remain a contentious issue in Washington. In July, a team of aviation consultants released a self-funded survey concluding that the new rule would cost the flying public $3.9 billion during the next two decades.

The study, which was based on the government’s May airline data, claimed that airlines had proactively canceled 140 flights to avoid violating the three-hour rule.

The Transportation Department issued a rare rebuttal that called the study “questionable” and asserted that the data didn’t support the analysts’ conclusions. A few weeks later, it sent out a press release touting the July tarmac delays as being “down dramatically” from the previous year.

The government has also signaled that it’s ready to enforce the three-hour rule, if indirectly. Earlier this month, for example, it went after Pinnacle Airlines, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines, for failing to submit accurate data regarding delays. The airline had reported that one of its flights exceeded the three-hour limit but then “reexamined” its data and concluded that the flight hadn’t been delayed by more than three hours, after all. Pinnacle was fined $10,000.

And there’s more. A sweeping passenger-rights rulemaking initiative currently under consideration would extend the three-hour rule to international carriers, require airlines to coordinate their tarmac-delay contingency plans with all U.S. airports they serve and compel airlines to notify passengers of the flight’s status every 30 minutes while a plane is delayed.

What does this mean to the average airline passenger? Your odds of being on a flight that’s stuck on the taxiway for more than three hours are extremely low, just as they’ve always been.

But is air travel a better experience now – or were tarmac delays an unnecessary diversion?

In the past year, there’s been a proliferation of airline fees that have effectively doubled the price of some tickets. Service cuts have continued, two major airlines have merged and two more are about to. Passengers are getting less and paying more.

Did the watchdogs waste their time on the tarmac? Not necessarily, says Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance (an organization that, by way of full disclosure, I helped start and continue to advise).

“Although tarmac delays were a small problem, they emboldened the government to help airlines find customer service religion again,” he said. Proposed new rules covering everything from transparent publication of airfares and airline fees to increases in denied-boarding compensation are “strong evidence” that the TransportationDepartment now expects airlines to treat passengers as people.

Maybe flight delays aren’t such a bad thing, after all.

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