DOT Mandates Passenger Bill of Rights and I’m Not Happy

Yesterday, the DOT decided to issue a final ruling that will effectively require airlines to have a passenger bill of rights. This includes a 3 hour limit on the amount of time you spend on the ground on a domestic flight. While I’m sure that Kate Hanni and friends are thrilled, I am not.

Why the 3 Hour Rule Sucks

You can read the full 81 page ruling (PDF) if you’d like, but there is one particular piece I want to focus on today. It’s the requirement that US-based airlines create contingency plans for mid- to large-sized airport operations.

The rule says that every US-based airline that operates planes with more than 30 seats (if those airlines also have smaller planes, those count too) has to create contingency plans that effectively restrict the airlines to the eventual detriment of the passengers. This plan must have the following in it:

  • Domestic flights cannot remain on the ramp for more than 3 hours unless there is a safety or security reason or if it “significantly disrupt airport operations.”
  • International flights have the same restriction but the time limit is “a set number of hours as determined by the carrier.”
  • After two hours, the airline must provide food and potable water.
  • Lavatories must work and medical attention must be provide if needed.

What happens if they don’t do this? It will be considered an “unfair and deceptive practice” and that means, according to 49 U.S.C. 41712 that “the Secretary shall order the air carrier, foreign air carrier, or ticket agent to stop the practice or method.” In practice, I’m not entirely clear what this means. Some news outlets are reporting the fine will be $27,500 PER PASSENGER, but to me it seems like it’s $27,500 PER FLIGHT. Obviously there’s a big difference there.

Long tarmac delays suck, right? So why am I against this plan? Let me explain.

Much of this came out of the severe delays that airlines experienced a couple years ago. Kate Hanni was on a thunderstorm-diverted American flight in Texas and the JetBlue Valentine’s Day problems were legendary. Since that time, the airlines have made changes, though it’s going to be nearly impossible to be perfect in this regard when you’re actually thinking about the customer.

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.

There’s no question that airlines would have had to cancel a lot of flights, but were they more conservative because of public backlash on delays? That’s my guess. Would you rather sit on an airplane for 4 hours or just have your flight canceled? I imagine that some would be happy to sit around for 4 hours if it meant they’d get out of town. Now they find themselves stuck.

But that’s not the only potential problem. Here’s another one. Let’s say that there’s a bad thunderstorm that snarls traffic for the day and your airplane has been inching along the taxiway for about 2 hours and 45 minutes. If that plane won’t be airborne by 3 hours, they have to turn around. It doesn’t matter if they were #1 for departure. Under this rule, the airline will be obligated to turn around and head back to the gate. Now we have a ton of problems – they have to let the passenger off, get the bag out and then get right back in the line at the very end. There is no place-holding allowed. Oh, and there’s a good chance the crew will have had too many hours at that point so they’ll need to find someone else to fly the plane. Now you’ll have a lot of unhappy customers.

“But look at what happened with Continental Express in Minnesota,” you might say. We need to prevent that, right? As I’ve argued before, this won’t do a thing to fix that problem. They tried to get people off the plane, but there were a lot of dumb moves that prevented that from happening. You think that a government law is going to magically change that? It’s not.

Oh, and that two hour rule for providing food and drink? Give me a friggin’ break. Airplanes are allowed to fly all day long without having food, so why do you need to provide food for a 2 hour delay? Water? Yeah, I get that. But food is a whole different beast, and it’s not necessary. Bring your own onboard.

There are a lot of other things in this ruling here as well, but most of those are worthless. Airlines have to disclose on time performance when you book. Ok. That info is readily available to anyone who wants it now. They also have to create a Customer Service Plan with 12 specific points. They already did – about 10 years ago with the Customers First plan. Yawn. I guess this just makes the things they already do into law.

So congratulations, DOT. You’ve created a rule that will do very little good. At least you’ll get some good press for it.

59 Responses to DOT Mandates Passenger Bill of Rights and I’m Not Happy

  1. wb says:

    @ Ron:
    Yes, and every resturant that gets your order wrong will now by law need to give you a free airline ticket

  2. Ron –

    I forgot to answer your question about gate utilization as compared to 50% utility for long-shore docks. The answer essentially is yes, there is a “sweet spot” with gates where having too few will cost a lot in delays and disruptions. Equally, having too many will cost just as much in wasted expense.

    Airlines plan the number of gates based on the high-water mark for traffic during any given day which, typically is early to mid-afternoon. That’s when the west coast flights hit Dallas, Chicago and other mid-west connecting points to east coast destinations. Absolutely every usable aircraft in the fleet is in the air and heading somewhere so they need room.

    If for any reason there is a disruption and suddenly there are more planes coming than can be physically accommodated there are a ton of options open to the airline depending on the city (hub or outpost) and weather. From the farthest point out they can..

    a) “Gate Hold” the flight at the departure city.
    b) Put the less critical flights in to a holding pattern (plenty of fuel, no medical emergencies or large group connections)
    c) Divert the marginal flights (running on empty)
    d) Land the critical flights if possible (already on final, tight/large connections, medical or mechanical issues)
    e) “Borrow” a gate from another airline (usually the outpost cities) long enough to work the flight and get it out of the way.

    Each flight, date, airport and weather scenario is different, as you can imagine but the long and short is, each airline plans enough gates for a normal operation. They wish they had more during a bad-hair day but they’d end up owning resources than they typically need all across the country.

    Kinda like snow-removal equipment in Phoenix. Who’s gonna spend all that money for something they might use once in ten years?

  3. Nice post Cranky!

    Thanks for the link to the ruling. I now have some reading matter for my next couple of flights to take closer look.

  4. short hop says:

    I actually agree with the ruling. It simply means that airports and airlines will have to do better prep work. People are not cattle, in that you can just put us anywhere. If there are 45 planes waiting for takeoff then putting people on a plane is just putting them into a cramped, uncomfortable, and smelly waiting room. A person is a intelligent, thoughtful, and reasonable being. People are frantic, nervous, dangerous, short tempered, unstable, creatures of comfort. Putting them on a plane with no where to go for three hours is a gamble at best. This shows more of a lack of technological integration and logistics more than anything. This ruling may be actually protecting the airlines from a very terrible outcome. Any physiologist can tell you that the wrong mixture of people in this situation can lead to a catastrophic situation. I also bet an airline would rather deplane and face no lawsuit than to have someone dead and facing a class action.

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