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 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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