Whatever happened to tarmac delays?

A delightful thing happened this week when a flight from Beijing to Macao was delayed on the tarmac for over three hours. A group of musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra, in China to mark 40 years since such cultural visits between the U.S. and China were re-established, broke out the instruments.

Most flight delays, of course, are not quite so fabulous, but it’s a diminishing phenomenon. For that you have to give credit to the federal government for getting it right.

It was only three or four years ago that there were constant stories of travelers being stranded on tarmacs for hours (remember the ExpressJet debacle in Rochester?). Passengers were frequently being held hostage. The government stepped up, changed the rules, and voila! In March, for example, there were no tarmac delays longer than three hours on a domestic flight.

It’s been a year since a scheduled domestic flight sat on the ground at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport for longer than three hours (coincidentally, it was an ExpressJet flight to St. Louis).

The critics of the idea said it would lead to airlines canceling more flights rather than delaying them because they’d want to avoid the possibility of being fined for tarmac delays. And anecdotal evidence suggests that may be true, but which would you rather? And, in the end, it turned out that if the airlines had really wanted to rid the problem of tarmac delays, they could have.