Have Tarmac Rules Led to More Canceled Flights?

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Any passenger ever stuck aboard a jet sitting on a tarmac for five hours no doubt cheered when the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) decreed that airlines could no longer hold passengers hostage. Now airlines whose jets are stuck on the runway for longer than two hours must provide water; at the three-hour mark, the airlines have to allow passengers to disembark — or face fines of $27,500 per head.

The airlines were unhappy with the new rules and warned that cancellations would increase as a result. That's exactly what is happening, according to a report by Darryl Jenkins, of TheAirlineZone.com, and Joshua Marks, of Marks Aviation, in conjunction with George Washington University. The aviation experts say flight cancellations in May were up 40% over those in May 2009. And with planes flying full, passengers on those canceled flights often can't secure a replacement flight until 12 to 48 hours later. The DOT disputes the significance of the report, saying it is misleading to reach conclusions based on only one month's worth of data.

Jenkins and Marks cite the DOT data showing 6,719 canceled flights in May — 1,924 more than the figure one year earlier. Most of those cancellations were attributable to the usual suspects, such as bad weather, mechanical difficulties or problems with crews exceeding their flight limit of 100 hours a month. Yet even controlling for these variables — and given that the weather this May was less severe than last May's — the researchers expected to see fewer cancellations rather than an increase. The pair instead found that 49 flights were canceled after being held on the runway for two to three hours — 250% more than last year's figure — and 75 flights were canceled after being held on the runway for one to two hours — 88% more than the number last year.

That data, say Jenkins and Marks, doesn't even account for indirect cancellations that result when a plane is taken out of the system. AirTran, for example, typically uses a single jet for five flights in a day. A flight held over, say, in Atlanta has a domino effect on the rest of the schedule. Whatever the precise number of canceled flights that can be directly or indirectly attributed to the tarmac rule, "it's a far cry," Marks says, "from the 41 canceled flights per year the DOT predicted in its regulatory-impact analysis."

The DOT denounced the study as statistical noise. "Airlines know the rules and they know they have to take passenger protections into account when making scheduling and operational decisions," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The Department of Transportation is committed to protecting the rights of airline passengers — starting with firm limits on tarmac delays — and no one should be misled by this unreliable study." The DOT also notes that if you consider cancellations over a 15-year period, the May 2010 rate was actually below the long-term average: 1.24% in May 2010 compared with the 15-year average of 1.51%. The DOT also points out that 86 planes returned to the terminal before the three-hour mark, let passengers off, allowed them to reboard and still delivered them to their scheduled destinations. In May 2009, there were only 22 such incidents.

But Jenkins and Marks stand by their analysis. "Let's have a discussion to figure out what's really happening here," says Marks. The rules, with fines levied on the airlines at potentially 300 times the flight revenue, are disproportionally punitive, they assert, and that's causing the airlines to be extremely risk-averse. The two found the airlines' internal guidelines dictated mandatory gate returns to avoid any fines. Delta, the report says, has a standing order for pilots to return to the gate at the two-and-half-hour mark — even if takeoff is imminent.

"This rule does have some impact," says Christopher White, spokesman for AirTran, though it's not clear what downstream effect the rule is having on planes that are held in Atlanta instead of continuing on to other destinations. "We need more data," says White. "We should have a better idea after July and August." The General Accounting Office last week commissioned its own study of the rule.

"We do know for sure that the rules did cause cancellations of flights that otherwise would've flown," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), an industry trade group. "Flights were canceled on the runway and before they left the gate." The ATA contends the numbers are small, "but even one passenger inconvenienced is one passenger too many." Airlines are complying with the rule, Castelveter says. "We're just saying there will be flights that will cancel rather than risk hefty fines."

Jenkins and Marks stress that the DOT rules are not all bad. "Water after two hours and keeping passengers informed about delayed flights are good things," says Jenkins. "But if you polled passengers and said, 'Would you like to stay on the plane for another 20 minutes and take off and reach your destination, or disembark and wait a day or two for the next open seat?,' I think most would rather wait on the tarmac."