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Kate Hanni and I Talk About Delays, We Disagree (Part One)

The three-hour ramp delay rules will go into effect next month, and we’re starting to hear the grumbling from around the industry get louder about what it’s going to mean. New Continental CEO Jeff Smisek has kicked off the love fest by saying that these new rules will mean more flight cancellations. JetBlue and Delta have Kate Hanni and Cranky Tanglealready applied for exemptions because of the runway work being done at JFK, and I fully expect this to be the tip of iceberg. It’s going to get ugly.

Regular readers of the blog know that I’m not a fan of the Passenger Bill of Rights. On the other side, we have Kate Hanni who thinks it’s absolutely necessary. When I saw this quote from Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org and stranded passenger back in 2006, I just had to talk to her.

Passenger advocates say that airlines don’t need to cancel flights to prevent tarmac delays. “This is solvable” without excess cancellations, said Kate Hanni, who founded Flyersrights.org after a flight she was on in 2006 was stranded.

Oh, really? I had to learn what her solution was here since nobody else seems to know it, so I called her up. Here’s the first part of our conversation. Part Two will go live tomorrow.

planeline

Cranky: Hello Kate. I saw you quoted as saying that this new rule shouldn’t be a big issue and that it won’t cause more cancellations, so I’m hoping you can explain how that’s the case.
Kate: They’re trying to convince the American people to be very afraid. See, they should have canceled flights already. They should have depeaked their schedules in New York, Atlanta, Dallas, and all the other airports where they schedule too many flights at one time but they haven’t done it. No measures have worked to get them to reduce their schedules. Are you aware of what the schedules look like at JFK? Are you aware that in the best of all conditions, the airlines can only have 81 flights per hour? Airlines overschedule in the morning. If they were to wait until 9 or 10am, this wouldn’t be a problem.

Cranky: Well, the problem is that people don’t want to fly at those times.
Kate: A lot of people would want to be flying at those times. The airlines drum up demand, get flights but they don’t have room. I know that if I could get a cheaper flight at 10am than 7am, I would.

Cranky: Leisure travelers yeah but business travelers not so much.
Kate: I’m a business traveler and I know. I have to fly from San Francisco to New York all the time. My husband is a business traveler as well and we would both fly at different times.

planeline

Cranky: But delays aren’t always the airlines’ fault. There are others responsible for these issues as well.
Kate: The airlines entirely control from the pushback of the plane out until the penalty box.

Cranky: But if they don’t push back, they don’t get in line for takeoff.
Kate: Trust me that I know exactly what’s going on. I have maps of the no-movement areas versus the movement areas. I’ve sat down with MIT professors and air traffic controllers and they say this is the way it is. It’s one of their own [airline] employees that’s telling that jet to push back from the gate and sit. Air traffic control has nothing to do with the movement of that jet.

Cranky: Wait, how often do you see an airplane push back but they don’t want to take off?
Kate: Approximately 10 times a day. Mostly in New York. We see it happen a lot at Reagan, even at Dallas. A lot at Chicago.

Cranky: But hold on. Why would an airline push this plane back and sit there for no reason?
Kate: Money. If they let you off the plane, if they leave you in the terminal, you have choices. You could migrate to a different airline. Migrate to a rental car, migrate to a train. You might say that I’ll try a different carrier.

Cranky: But no airline wants to push back and just sit there. Why would they push back if they weren’t trying to take off?
Kate: Because they’re clearing gates so incoming jets can clear gates. But the second reason is that they don’t want you leaving.

Cranky: Let me try to explain my question better. You say that the airlines are at fault for keeping airplanes sitting on the ground and it’s not air traffic control’s fault. Airlines want to get airplanes moving so they can pick up their next planeload of paying passengers, so why would they just push back and not take off if it’s not air traffic control causing the hold ups?
Kate: They do want to take off but they can’t because there are too many flights scheduled. Every morning at many many airports there is overscheduling in the best of all conditions and those planes are not going to take off. [The airlines] are going to grab revenue and then keep it.

planeline

Tomorrow, we’ll pick up where we left off. As you can see, Kate has basically boiled this down to, in her eyes, a simple issue of overscheduling. If the airlines would simply change their flights to go at off-peak times, everything would be solved. But there is a problem. Despite what Kate and her husband are willing to do, most business travelers, the bread and butter of most airlines, aren’t going to be that flexible. This is especially true on the short haul flights because people want to be able to do day trips. It’s even worse in New York because of all the competition.

Let’s forget that the afternoons are the worst times in New York and not the mornings and use Kate’s example. Right now, US Airways has its first flight to LaGuardia at 748a and its second at 1021a. If US Airways gets rid of that 748a flight, all those business travelers looking for a day trip will head over to Newark to take the 805a on Continental. US Airways is not going to do that.

If overscheduling truly is the biggest issue and not anything else (which is somewhat debatable), then the question should be why the government hasn’t instituted more strict slot controls instead of this rule. That would more directly address the problem instead of this rule, which will have far more unintended consequences for travelers. It will, of course, not help when weather goes bad and airport capacity gets reduced, so there’s no magic bullet.

These are the questions that I ask in Part Two, which will be posted tomorrow.

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