Study: Rule to prevent tarmac delays causes more delays

After a spate of high-profile airline problems in which passengers were stranded on planes for hours even though they were within sight of a gate, the Department of Transportation imposed rules with heavy fines for significant delays.

The airline industry warned that the rule would actually lead to more delays because they’d just cancel flights rather than delay them.

A study out today says that’s just what happened.

The research from Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that tarmac delays were reduced, but it led to an increase of delayed passengers inside the terminals.

The rule was imposed in 2010, not longer after an ExpressJet flight sat for six hours in Rochester, Minn., the most infamous of the stranded flights.

The rule prohibits U.S. airlines from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without allowing the passengers to get off.

“Overall, the rule is estimated to have significantly increased passenger delays, especially for passengers scheduled to travel on the flights that are at risk of long tarmac delays,” says Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

His study proposed increases the amount of time passengers would have to sit on the tarmac to 3.5 hours, and impose the rule only on flights that would have departed before 5 p.m.

  • I’m trying to figure out what would make a tarmac delay take multiple hours? Seriously, if there is a broken part, why not taxi back to the gate to let the passengers deplane for a spell?

    • Quite often it’s a weather hold at a destination airport. ANd they could taxi back to the gate except the problem is the gate is occupied by another plane, from what I understand.

      Many of the more famous incidents of tarmac delays weren’t planes bound for takeoff, but ones that had just landed. There were no gates b/c flights got canceled in snowstorms etc.

      Airlines used to be so concerned about on-time performance that they’d push back from the gate knowing the plane isn’t going anywere; but they got credit for an on-time departure just by pushing back from the gate on time.

      I’ll never forget the time we landed at NWA in a snowstorm and we couldn’t gt to the gate because another plane was there. So we sat and sat and sat. And when a colleague fired up the laptop, the flight attendant sternly admonished him. Because, you know, it might interfere with the plane’s navigation equipment.

      • Ah, that makes sense, at least in an airline executive’s mind.

        Thank you for the explanation.

  • Rob

    3.5 hours is still whack, as it amounts to false imprisonment I think tarmac delays of more than half an hour should be forbidden. At least if you’re stuck in the terminal due to cancellation you can move around, take a walk, etc.

    • Jim in RF

      Exactly. The rule would still be a success if it caused 3x as many delays, but they all happened in the terminal instead of the tarmac. The goal isn’t to reduce delays, but to make them less inhumane.

  • Mike Worcester

    If given the choice between: a – stuck in a plan on a tarmac, and b – sitting in the terminal waiting to board, I think the answer is fairly easy.

    (Of course this does not include the scenarios where the plane lands and there is no available gate.)

    • Jack

      At least sitting in the terminal you have the ability to freely use the bathroom, get food of your choice (there are more options), and charge your electronic devices!