Tarmac delay rules could make things worse

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With all of the flight cancellations because of the coming snowstorm, we have to wonder: What will it be like when new rules go into effect intended to eliminate tarmac delays (read the rules)? Under the new regulations, flights would have to return to the gate before the delay reaches three hours, even if they’re #1 for takeoff after waiting that long.

Are there unintended consequences coming? Probably, says The Crankly Flier blog. Airlines may be much more likely to cancel flights, rather than have them be delayed. Tarmac delays are no fun, but at least if you’re stuck in one, you still have a chance to get out of Dodge. That doesn’t happen with a canceled flight.

This past weekend, we saw a massive storm hit the east coast, and how did the airlines do? Well Delta and JetBlue both informed me that they had no domestic airplanes stuck on the tarmac for more than 3 hours the entire time. (American never responded.) There was one JetBlue flight from St Maarten that actually sat on the ground at JFK for 3 hours and 49 minutes, but that is international so this rule probably wouldn’t have hit it. More importantly, why did that happen?

It’s all because of gate issues. JetBlue and other airlines started pre-canceling a lot of flights, as I noted on BNET yesterday. Obviously the more flights you pre-cancel, the better chance the remaining flights will operate, but it means that there are a lot of airplanes around and shuffling them to make gates available during a blizzard is a tricky thing. You never want to see a plane sitting around for more than 3 hours, but if it’s only one (and JetBlue compensated the passengers), then that’s not too bad for the storm of the decade.

But all this pre-canceling comes at a price. That means there are a lot more people who aren’t getting home for Christmas because so many flights were canceled.

Part of the reason for the new rules is the August incident in Rochester, Minnesota, when an ExpressJet flight, diverted from Minneapolis because of bad weather, sat all night on the tarmac.

But The Crankly Flier says the new rules wouldn’t have made a difference in that incident. The problem, he noted in an August post, was “dumb people” inside the terminal who wouldn’t let the people off. While the pilot on that flight could have been more insistent, her hands were pretty well tied by the incompetence of others.


So did we learn anything? Maybe a little. We definitely learned that crews should escalate the issue as high as possible if it doesn’t get resolved quickly. We also learned that passengers should just walk off the damn plane if they get stuck for that long. But this really was a combination of a bunch of things coming together to screw these poor passengers.

The problem is that this ends up stoking the fire for a government-regulated passenger bill of rights, and I still don’t think that’s going to help. There are plenty of things about this industry that the government doesn’t understand – they’re likely to come up with a bill that makes things worse for everyone. But, if the industry keeps letting crap like this happen, then there isn’t going to be another option.

But how big is the problem really? In October, the latest month for which statistics are available, there were only 12 flights with delays of more than 3 hours. Eleven of them occurred at JFK in New York. That’s just .13 percent of all flights in October.

Northwest canceled 6 flights that had already left the gate. The average time spent on the tarmac before cancellation was just 42 minutes. Delta’s average wait for canceled flights was about half that.

Most of the big airport delays are for flights that are diverted to other airports. Northwest, for example, had several flights in October that were held at other airports for up to 13 hours. All passengers were allowed to get off the plane, even on those flights that were held for “only” 3 hours.

For all of 2009 Minneapolis-St. Paul had only 11 departing flights all year that had delays of three hours or more; most of them were in a single snowstorm.

If airlines don’t want to take a chance of big fines, there’s a chance some of these flights with delays of only 45 minutes would be canceled altogether.

The new rules take effect in the spring.