Department of Totally Obvious Unintended Consequences

Scott Mayerowitz details the first month consequences new rule on tarmac delays. With steep fines of up to $27,500 per passenger when a flight delays three or more hours on the tarmac, airlines are cancelling flights instead of risking coming out of pocket very deeply.

Airlines appear now to be canceling more flights rather than risk multi-million dollar fines for keeping passengers stuck on the tarmac for three hours or more.

While passengers won’t be trapped in hot, crowded jets for hours on end, they might be stuck waiting in terminals even longer, and getting to their destination hours, maybe even days later.

Only five domestic flights in May waited on the tarmac for more than three hours, according to new data from the Department of Transportation. That’s down from 34 planes last May.

At the same time, airlines chose to cancel more flights. Last May, there were 4,792 flight cancelations. This May, that figure jumped to 6,716 flights, according to the DOT.

Airlines protested the new DOT tarmac rule, saying it would have unintended consequences including the cancelation of more flights, ultimately getting passengers to their destinations later.

“There’s a much larger number of cancelations than we’ve ever seen before,” said Darryl Jenkins, an airline consultant who also runs the website The Airline Zone.

Jenkins said it is taking 17 to 18 hours on average to rebook passengers on those canceled flights.

What was the Department of Transportation’s reaction to the consequences of their new rules?

“We’ll let others interpret the data, but bottom line, we believe passengers have a fundamental right to expect they’ll be treated fairly and with respect when they fly,” Jones said. “We’re only one month in, so it would be premature of us to draw conclusions.”

The airlines aren’t evil, they don’t want people trapped on planes. These situations are almost always driven by weather outside of their control, and it’s not even up to the airlines most of the time to return to the gate, most of the stories are about red tape and the rules or resources of government or airports standing in the way. Instead of big fines and more cancellations, we need better preparedness and procedures, and more discretion for pilots and ability for them to enlist the resources they need to get back to the gate when they make the decision that’s the best thing for their aircraft. They don’t want to be trapped onboard, either.

No doubt air traffic procedures can be improved, with better queuing rules for planes so that they don’t need to stay in line for hours on end in order to keep themselves eligible to get out of an airport when air traffic control permits. And there is certainly the need for better airport responsiveness, so that whenever a pilot declares a desire to offload passengers, that the airport is willing and able to accomodate it — too many stories of no equipment or staff available in order to offload, or a concern about lack of pseudo-security theatre officers keeping passengers trapped on planes.

There’s no question that the interminable delays, the ones that always make for news when passengers are trapped overnight in a plane are undesireable and almost tragic.

But even those are due to bad weather, combined with bad procedures on the ground. It’s more often the airport facilities to blame than the airlines, but the airlines make a great target and now face massive fines.

I’ve had my share of three hour delays on the ground, those are meaningfully different than an eight or twelve hour overnight on arrival. Sometimes it’s desireable to get back into the terminal and wait, without giving up the ability to fly. But I’d leave that to the pilot if queuing procedures could faciltate it. But those three hour departure delays are often worth sitting through when there are no other options to get where you’re going. The real ire ought to be focused on delays after arrival (or landing when diverted), it’s not. We’re just cancelling flights. And no one should be surprised at all.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Unfortunately Scott Mayerowitz is just spinning the statistics to his convenience. It is irrelevant if ~6000 flights were canceled in a month compared to ~4000 a year ago unless you are calibrating for weather, maintenance issues, etc.

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