DOT Continues to Claim Tarmac Delay Victory Despite 20 Percent Rise in Cancellations

The Air Travel Consumer Report covering July flights is out, and the Department DOT Delay Masterof Transportation release on so-called “tarmac” delays had the same subject line as it did last month with only the month’s name changed.

Long Tarmac Delays in July Down Dramatically from Last Year

Yes, the DOT has decided to crow once again about how few long ground delays there were with “only a slight increase in the rate of canceled flights.” Really? I would think a 20% increase in canceled flights would be a little more than “slight,” don’t you?

That’s right. Forgetting about the DOT’s rounding to a single decimal point, the cancellation rate rose from 1.18 to 1.43 percent, an increase of more than 20 percent. Had the same cancellation rate from last year held for this July, there would have been 1,442 fewer flights canceled this year. If you assume 100 people on each flight, that’s nearly 150,000 people impacted.

Small increase, huh?

But don’t think that this is me crowing that the rule is failing miserably either. There are other issues here as well that came into play. The DOT doesn’t like to dig into these things, but it’s very important to look at where the cancellations came from.

The bulk in July came from Delta, which had a miserable month all the way around. Of the 8,170 canceled flights in July, more than 3,000 came from Delta and its regional affiliates. Delta also failed to run even 70 percent of its flights on time, joined in that exclusive bottom-dwelling club by wholly-owned subsidary Comair and Continental’s main regional, ExpressJet.

So what happened to make Delta’s month so terrible? I knew this was coming, so I made sure to ask Glen Hauenstein, CMO and EVP Network Planning, Revenue Management and Marketing when I was at Delta a couple weeks ago. The full interview will be published later, but this snippet is entirely relevant.

We gave ops a very challenging schedule to achieve. In turn, ops was trying to streamline some of its practices. We may have crossed in the night on that. By the second week of August, they were at the top of their game.

So they had issues and eventually fixed them, but those issues certainly contributed to the cancellation rate for the month. Does that mean that the DOT should continue crowing about how awesome its rule-making ability is? No. As Glen says . . .

We have turned back flights getting close to 3 hours and have canceled them. The total number is not that great, but if you’re on a plane that gets turned back at 2.5 hours and cancels, then it becomes very personal.

True. And Delta wasn’t the only one seeing increases either. While the legacy operating carriers did mostly hold steady (outside of Delta), their regionals took more of the heat. For example, American Eagle and ExpressJet both saw fairly substantial increases in cancellation rates.

So where does this leave us? Once again, it’s hard to draw conclusions despite the DOT’s need to do so for political purposes. Without knowing exact cancellations due to the ground delay rule, we can’t see the true trade-off.

We know for sure that there have been additional cancellations, but nobody wants to talk exact numbers. Any airlines out there want to start releasing details? Come on, you know you want to.

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