First Month Under the Three Hour Ground Delay Rule Sees More Travelers Inconvenienced

Back at the end of April, the rule enacting massive fines to airlines who keep people on an airplane on the ground for more than three hours went into effect. The Department of Transportation just released May’s results and the numbers show that more travelers were inconvenienced. Have you been reading articles about how ground delays are way down? Those aren’t looking at the whole picture. There were fewer ground delays than the previous year, but cancellations were up significantly.

On-time percentage in May 2010 was 79.9 percent across all reporting airlines. It was 80.5 percent in 2009, so it was comparable in that respect. Then we look at cancellations. In 2010, 1.24 percent of flights were canceled. Back in 2009? It was only 0.88 percent. Had the May 2009 rate held through in 2010, nearly 2,000 fewer flights would have been canceled in May of this year. If you assume an average of 100 people on a flight, you get almost 200,000 people who were inconvenienced this year that wouldn’t have been inconvenienced last year. Many have said that it was a small increase in cancellations. That seems pretty big to me.

Now, let’s look at the number of lengthy ground delays. In May 2009, there were 34 flights stuck on the ramp for more than 3 hours. This year, there were 5. If we stick with that 100 passenger per flight number, then we’re at 3,400 people who weren’t sitting on a plane on the ground for more than 3 hours this year. Remember, that compares to an increase of nearly 200,000 people who were inconvenienced by cancellations. Let me put this in a pretty picture:

May Ground Delays Vs Cancellations

 

Are we really making a fair comparison here? After all, there’s no way to directly attribute all the additional cancellations to this rule. There are differences in weather that could also cause large swings. But the increase in cancellations was spread out across airlines. Of the 18 reporting airlines, two-thirds reported an increase in the number of cancellations. Weather alone is not going to cause that to be spread across the country, though it can certainly count for some of it.

But that doesn’t really matter. There’s an even better way to look at this. If only 1.5 percent of those additional cancellations were due to the ground delay rule, then more people still would have been inconvenienced by higher cancellations than were saved from three hour delays. And that assumes that the reduction in long ground delays was entirely due to the new rule, something that’s highly unlikely.

But let’s not stop there. Lets look at the five long ground delays. Four of them were on United in Denver on May 26. That was the day that not only saw thunderstorms roll through the airport, but it also saw a tornado hit. Yeah, think the weather was bad? Maybe we can forgive four airplanes being stuck for that long.

The last one was Delta flight 2011 from Atlanta to Dallas/Ft Worth on May 28. Both airports saw thunderstorms that afternoon, but Atlanta had more than an inch and a half of rain. It was an awful day.

The Delta flight was stuck on the ground for 3 hours and 2 minutes. Yeah, that’s right. It went a mere two minutes over the limit. So I asked Delta what happened. Apparently, the airplane was in a “bad spot” on taxiway and there was lightning so the ramp workers couldn’t come out to meet the airplane. Had the airplane come back to the gate, it would have canceled and the passengers wouldn’t have gotten out of town for at least 10 to 12 hours.

That’s just one more example of when a 3 hour and 2 minute delay isn’t nearly as bad as the alternative. Of course, Kate Hanni, the director of FlyersRights.org thinks it’s a good idea to gloat. She has been quoted as saying “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”

Despite Kate’s claim, there is nothing to gloat about. More people are being inconvenienced than before. So, Kate, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

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51 Comments on "First Month Under the Three Hour Ground Delay Rule Sees More Travelers Inconvenienced"

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Alex Hill
Member
I do not think that there is more total inconvenience now. Personally, I would much rather have my flight cancelled than sit through a four hour ground delay. First of all, being delayed for hours in the terminal is far more pleasant (read: less unpleasant) than being delayed for hours stuck on the plane. Second, when a flight is cancelled, particularly with advanced notice, you have options: get confirmed on the next flight with an open seat, cancel the trip if the weather is so bad that nothing’s going out, etc. Certainly not ideal, but preferable to many-hour ground delays.… Read more »
Darren
Guest

I wonder if you’d feel the same way if due to full flights, you can’t get confirmed on a new flight for several days and either have to forego the trip (not too easy to do if you are trying to get home) or sit at the airport trying to get an open seat on standby.

mowogo
Guest

For leisure travelers, a cancellation is a minor annoyance, it may shorten the vacation by a day or two. For the business traveler, it is one of the worst things possible, as if we are on the last flight of the night and only have two days home, the cancellation effectively kills the weekend at home (which is usually full of things to take care of) since Saturday morning is spent flying, and with some exhaustion Saturday afternoon preventing anything major from happening only leaving Sunday to get things that were supposed to be accomplished over the weekend done.

Hermann
Guest

In theory, you may be right, but of course there is a but ;)

When a flight is cancelled to avoid the 3h-rule, that is likely to happen while you´re already on that plane or on the way to the airport so there is little to no advance notice. In that case, getting confirmed on another flight may not be as easy as there will be a planeload of people trying to get confirmed onto a flight that likely is already filled with its own planeload of people.

Alex Hill
Member
I’m curious whether that’s really the case. Is there a way to find the percentage of cancellations that occurred after the flight pushed back from the gate before and after the rule was announced (because most airlines implemented their policy changes between the announcement of the policy and the date the fines began), or some other relevant statistic? My anecdotal impression is that this policy is really prodding airlines to make the hard decisions and reduce capacity when weather doesn’t let them fly their full schedule, and I think that’s a good thing. Yes, to some extent it reduces the… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
Alex, with airlines running as they are, you’re not going to find a flight for a long time in many cases. While being stuck on a plane isn’t a fun thing, if you told people that an airline could get you there, just 4 hours late, most people would go for that four hours. Lavs etc should of course be working. The problem is the FAA trying to solve the problem that happens 0.000042% of the time. Unfortunately outliers and extreme exceptions happen. Why hamper the normal exceptions? I think this whole topic has been dramatically affected by framing. Kate… Read more »
Alex Hill
Member
Of course Kate Hanni is over the top, but “inconvenienced” is underselling the discomfort. An adverb like “severely” might be more appropriate. :) Certainly there are things about the rule that should be improved by the FAA. The fact that 2:59 is no fine but 3:01 is a huge fine stands out; something like a small fine after 2:00 that gets bigger for longer delays would probably be better. Such a fine could probably be structured to remove the incentive for planes to pull out of line when they’re 15 minutes from takeoff (the relatively small increment in the fine… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member
Most people would rather get to their destination, even if they’re late. I think an airline has an obligation to provide working toilets and free water for long ground delays. Optimally they’d also offer snacks as well. JetBlue has long stated that they care less about their ontime statistics, as they’d rather run a plane late, and get the passengers there, than to cancel it and delay their passengers. The horror stories were and are horrendous, but airlines want to keep their planes moving, thats the only time when they make money, and if that plane doesn’t get to its… Read more »
kenkoyo
Guest

With flights running so full appx 85% and using the 100 folks on a flight it would take the next 6 or 7 flights to get all those folks on the next planes. If you have a connecting flight you would be out of luck, remember if it is a weather delay and airlines don’t need to feed you or put you up in a hotel if the next flight is the next day. I will take 4 hours on a plane before spending 4, 6, 8, 24 hours hoping to get on a plane.

Dan
Guest

Alex, yes there is (or at least there should be). If there’s one undeniably positive thing that Kate’s group did, she at least got BTS to start reporting better data in their delays. Starting in late 2008, BTS now reports information on gate returns and what not. It had already reported cancellation data. You should be able to calculate what you want from that.

Mark Mogel
Guest
In answer to the question regarding how many flights pushed back from the gate and were later cancelled, in April 2010 (before the rule) there were 217. In May 2010 (after the rule) there were 355. However, one month does not make a trend. In April and May 2009 (long before the rule) there were 396 and 278 respectively. So looking at that data in isolation isn’t useful. The question is, how many flights are being cancelled solely because of the rule? One indicator, as Cranky has shown, is to look at overall cancellation statistics. But that is only part… Read more »
Neil S
Guest

I agree that the rule is less than ideal. But if you’re gonna have a rule, it needs to be followed. 3 hours and 2 minutes isn’t much different than 3 hours. But where do you draw the line? Is 3 hours and 10 minutes okay? 3 hours and 20 minutes?

Debating the stupidity of the rule is one thing. Randomly enforcing it is another.

Jason H
Guest
The rule, as written is full of holes. And the DL flight is one of those. If there is excessive lightning in the area does this rule now require airlines to risk the lives of their employees to bring a plane of children… err.. passengers to the gate? If so, then the DOT rule violates OSHA rules. Which misguided government agency rules the day? In short the rule was misguided from the start, applied to a fraction or a fraction of a percent of the flights, and fails to put blame on the airports and ATC (another misguided government agency… Read more »
Eddie
Guest
I was at LGA in May, and we were finally at the front of the takeoff line when our plane was forced to return to the gate to avoid breaking the 3 hour rule. I ended up missing my connection in IAH and was forced to overnight at the airport until the next morning. If not for this genius rule I probably would’ve made my connection, so this rule created a 12 hour delay for me. And since this flight wasn’t cancelled, it’s not even counted in Cranky’s total. If anything, Cranky’s passenger total *underestimates* the total number of inconvenienced… Read more »
Dan
Guest
See, that’s the thing that really bugs me about this rule. Granted, the following is pretty ambiguous, but if you’re “making clear progression to the head of the taxi queue and take off is imminent” (my words) you shouldn’t be subject to the three-hour rule penalties. Somewhere, there’s a balance, but this isn’t it. (I’m 6’1″ and 240 lbs. I have visions of sitting in a cramped CRJ-200 somewhere for hours on end. I’d rather be waiting in the terminal, and no rule forces the airlines to cancel the flight instead of delaying it and allowing the passenger to wait… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
No one wants delays, but some like weather are out of human hands. Seems like the rule should have been in the simplest form of you return to the gate if the toilets are not working (or need to be emptied), provide food and water, and set a higher time just sitting out there. If other planes have been sitting out there for hours already, it seems like the airport shouldn’t be having planes leaving the gate in the first place. That would clog taxi ways even more. It seems that airlines/airports don’t know what to do when something doesn’t… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Interesting point. If this was fair, the airlines would be able to declare “forced deboarding” to the airport and they’d have to provide certain resources, such as a gate with boarding ramp, or at minimum a set of stairs and buses to a safe location. If not they’d get fined, or the FAA would reduce the fine.

james
Guest
I also respectfully disagree with Alex. I’d rather get to where I’m going late, than be stuck in another city WITHOUT a seat on a plane. At least during a delay you’re IN a seat, rather than bouncing from gate to gate hoping for for a seat, possibly after a night of sleeping on the floor or five hours in a hotel. My example for the list: June 2 ORD-DEN 7pm. Storms close westbound departures, the row of planes all taxi over to a pad and shutdown the engines. Thanks to Channel 9 we can hear the pilot discuss options… Read more »
derek.a.stewart
Member

I was going ORD-LAX on the same exact day (6/2) and waited on the tarmac in the plane for 1h 45m. Plus add two small children and a wife. I was praying the weather would clear because I knew there was no way 4 people were getting confirmed on another flight anytime soon. And we were prepared (extra food, water, games, etc,etc) so it was not bad, but was worried this 3hour rule was going to wreck havoc on a vacation trip. Luckily it worked out.

The rule stinks to be blunt.

Brian
Guest
I was on a flight from EWR-ATL that was delayed because of this rule. There were storms in the northeast, which means flights out of Newark were a disaster. First they delayed the flight from 4:50 to 6:10, but gave me a few hours notice of that…so no biggie. They were still late for the 6:10 schedule, but we backed away from the gate at 6:35. They immediately parked us on the tarmac. We were not in a taxiway line; just sitting in a holding area. We waited for over two hours as the storms rolled through and the airport… Read more »
Donald
Guest
James said, “Except for the guy in front of me who groaned loudly when the pilot declined taking off into the rebuilding storm.” Channel 9 would have been a real thrill after takeoff. “WIND SHEAR WIND SHEAR, TERRAIN TERRAIN CLIMB CLIMB!!!” These would be example of the warning systems sound during the departure you could have heard. Also if you prefer the cancellation to the delay, consider that yours won’t be the only airline if its due weather. Now start calling around for a hotel room for the night. The airlines will be of little help, because they are not… Read more »
lunogled
Guest

Now start calling around for a hotel room for the night. The airlines will be of little help, because they are not responsible for cancellations due to weather.

Well, they are in Europe, through somehow some airlines (eg Ryanair) flagrantly violate this.

Perhaps removing the “weather” loophole (and enforcing the regulation) would solve the cancellations problem: Itd be too expensive to cancel.

trackback

[…] and will be flying to San Francisco and Los Angeles. (HT: Charles) Three-hour ground delay rule harmed 195,000 passengers while helping 3,400. Park Hyatt Seoul: not a single flaw. […]

Megan
Guest
Let’s talk about JFK airport during international push. Around 4-7pm there are a lot of airplanes taxiing out the runway. This alone can cause quite the line of planes. I have been #15, #30, etc. Add in some weather and that number can get to #60 and #89 (yup I have been 89 in line to take off). That is way over 3 hours of taxi time. I agree with Cranky’s article. More people are inconvienced because of this rule. People, the airlines don’t just cancel the flights. You board up, thinking you are going to get home, taxi out… Read more »
Brian
Guest
Megan, I hope I’m not misunderstanding your post…but the fact that they have 89 planes in line should not be an excuse to keep passengers on the plane longer than 3 hours. If the line is that bloody long, they should wait to board passengers closer to the actual departure time. This would save passengers from being seat-bound, would save fuel, and generally make the process happier for everyone. Also, my experience differs with your explanation. At the 3 hour mark, we did go back to the gate, but we DID NOT get off. That’s the stupid part about this… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Well half of this is the FAA’s fault, as they won’t let a plane get in line to take off until its pushed back from the gate. So the airline could try to wait for the line to disappear, but at an airport such as JFK that’ll never happen until say 3 am or maybe later, so the plane will never take off.

Brian
Guest

Saying it’s the FAA’s fault doesn’t change the fact that having 89 planes in line is stupid. I know JFK is notorious for this, and I’ve heard that they’re testing a program that actually allows you to hold a virtual place in line. They only keep some small number of planes in a physical line. The rest are at the gate, in a holding area, etc. I sure hope they can figure that out. But that would be too much like right. :)

David M
Guest
You don’t have to go back to the gate to allow passengers to get up. I was once on a PHL-ORD flight that was delayed due to snow in ORD. We pushed back from the gate hopeful but things didn’t go well and our flow time got pushed way back. We parked on a taxiway on the opposite side of the runway from the active line for takeoff, and the seat belt sign was turned off and we could get up, use the lav, etc. A better wheels up time was ultimately secured and the seat belt sign went back… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

The other thing is the airport could help out in instances like this. If they know the line is going to be say two hours, they could put together a line of planes, park them somewhere, and not move them for say an hour or so, saving fuel, and allowing passengers to roam the cabin and use the bathroom, etc..

Scott
Guest

I think one thing has been clearly established in all of this: Kate Hanni is an irrational nut job!

Dan
Guest

I wouldn’t go that far. She got pissed off and did something about it other than complain on a message board somewhere. That’s more than can be said for a lot of people.

Brian
Guest

The whole “on-time” departure statistic is BS. They report whether the cabin door was closed on-time, not whether the flight actually went anywhere. So if a flight left the gate on-time, but sat for 2:45, returned to the gate for an hour, then taxied for another 2:45 before departure….that would still count as an on-time departure. What a joke. If we’re going to look at that number at all, we also need to know about on-time ARRIVALS.

Nick Barnard
Member

I wonder why anyone really cares about ontime departure. I could care less how late we leave, as long as we arrive ontime.

Its a useless statistic if I ever saw one.

J
Guest

The airline is not compelled to cancel a flight just because the aircraft has to return to the gate after 3 hours.

Trent880
Guest

Their other choice is to pay an astronomical per-person fine that costs vastly more than recrewing/reaccomodating that and other flights it may affect. And since 99 times out of 100 it’s weather related, the airline doesn’t owe passengers any compensation. It’s simple economics really.

Tom
Guest

I think it would be interesting to see a survey of passengers taken after flights were canceled because of the new rule. Questions like would you have preferred to wait out the delay on the plane and get to your destination late or are you satisfied to be off the plane and looking for another way to reach your destination.
I’ll bet regardless of how well crafted the survey questions would be the end answer would be that people would like to try to wait out most delays and get to their destination.

MeanMeosh
Guest
My answer on how bad this rule is depends on the circumstances. If the airline uses the 3-hour rule as an excuse to pre-cancel flights, and it’s the outbound flight we’re talking about, I’d much rather have them pre-cancel than deal with a multi-hour delay leaving, plus a potential misconnect. It sucks to have to delay a vacation or business trip, but dorking around at home or the office while trying to figure out other options isn’t the worst thing in the world. On the other hand, if they pre-cancel (or a return to the gate at 2:55) occurs while… Read more »
Boraxo
Guest
I am really delighted to see that 200,000 people did not have to suffer being held prisoner on flights for 6, 7 hours or more, without working lavs, food, water. Kate is right, that is a huge improvement. Yes, I would rather risk being stuck in another city for a few days, camping out in a nice hotel room or at least in the airport where there is decent food, space to walk and stretch, and power for internet connections. And that is the worst case scenario, in all likelihood you’ll find another flight the next day assuming it isn’t… Read more »
Jack
Guest
I would be curious, though, how much the winter storms this February affected the cancellation rate so far this year. I was flying during this time and it ended up taking almost a week to get home – I think at final count there were 9 different flights that I was booked on that ended up getting canceled. Obviously bad weather happens every year, but I think this particular weather event may be important because it more or less simultaneously shut down Dulles, National, BWI, Logan, JFK, and LaGuardia, all major passenger transit points, for multiple days in a row.… Read more »
trackback

[…] Government regulation of airlines, intended to make life easier for passengers, has actually made th…. Who could have predicted this? […]

FrP
Guest
What about modifying the rule such that after more than 2 hours: – If the plane eventually takes off, no fine – If the plane eventually returns to the airport, they get fined And then after 4 hours, they get fined no matter what happens (more than the amount above for 2-4 hours) Of course, the times and sizes of the fines can be adjusted. This scheme would mean that if the plane was stuck for 2 hours or so, the pilots would decide to return to the gate if it was unlikely that they would take off soon (such… Read more »
David Z
Guest

As time goes by, hopefully more data will be available to make hopefully more “informed” decisions how to proceed. Time will tell.

HunterSFO
Guest
my two cents: everyone here seems to be assuming that if the three hour rule forces you to return to the gate you will not get where you are going for at least overnight and possibly several days. This just simply isn’t reality. I *always* find that in IRROPS i get on the very next flight, or at worst the one after that. Sometimes my original flight goes out eventually but i get rebooked on a flight that gets there at the same time or even SOONER than my original flight would have if it had left and arrived on… Read more »