A Modest Proposal on Tarmac Delays

It looks like my wish for a more thorough review of tarmac delays has been answered. Instead of the off-the-cuff claim of victory that the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been espousing, Darryl Jenkins and Josh Marks went back after their preliminary study and have now come out with a deeper analysis of the impacts of the tarmac delay rule over the entire summer. What’s more, they aren’t just suggesting to eliminate the rule. They’ve come up with ways to alter the rule to help blunt the impact on cancellations. Hopefully the DOT doesn’t just dismiss them as it did last time and instead actually listens to this truly modest proposal (which unlike the original, is not satire.)

Want to guess what they found? Here’s the summary:

Tarmac Delay Summer Summary

But the summary is only the tip of the iceberg on this study. As we all know and expected, long ground delays went down and cancellations went up. Year-over-year, there were 534 fewer long ground delays. Now, it’s tempting to say those were all reduced because of the rule, but that’s not going to be true. The weather was much better this year, and the airlines were also more conscious about the issue. So I imagine that only some of these reductions are directly attributable to the rule, but that’s fine. The rule did reduce long ground delays as advertised.

On the other side, there were more than 5,000 additional cancellations this year versus last. These also cannot all be attributed to the rule. But with weather being better, you would think that cancellations would be on the lower side. I know that Delta admitted to running a fairly poor operation for part of the summer, so that could account for some of the cancellations, but these numbers were consistently higher across all the airlines. This isn’t an airline operation-specific problem. The rule has to be responsible for some of the increase.

Oh, and about that weather . . . the study shows that conditions were far better this summer than last. In fact, it was one of the best weather summers in years. The study looked at the type of weather, the time of day, and the length of the weather event and the result was the same all around. Weather was better, around 30 percent better in fact.

From this information, I think it’s safe to say that the rule has caused significantly more people to be inconvenienced this year versus last. Yes, this year the inconvenience was due to more cancellations while last year it was due to long ground delays, but the total number of people hurt was higher. So should we scrap the rule? Nah, that’s what I like about this study. It actually suggests some fairly minor tweaks to the rule to make it more effective and reduce the impact on cancellations. Here’s the plan.

  1. Instead of having a nebulous fine structure that simply says it could be up to $27,500 per passenger, change it so that there are very clear fines published for everyone to see. In addition, have a graduated fine structure so that it starts out relatively low if it’s between 3 and 3.5 hours and then climbs higher the longer the delay.
  2. Clarify the current language in the rule and fix inconsistencies so that airlines really know how this is supposed to work. There all several pieces of the rule that are currently left to interpretation and it should never be that way. Airlines should clearly know what they’re dealing with.
  3. Do not punish flights that attempt to return to the gate at the 2h30m mark. Today, airlines start canceling earlier and earlier to make sure they don’t cross 3 hours. If the gate return is started at 30 minutes before the time limit, then that would encourage airlines to at least keep their planes out there until that point instead of canceling earlier just to be safe. This will get more flights in the air.
  4. Require all airlines to report this data (not just the bigger ones) and make them code cancellations that were caused specifically by the tarmac delay rule so even more accurate measurement of the impact can be made. Right now, it requires a lot of guess work because the data isn’t fully broken out.
  5. Do not expand the rule to small airports and international flights until changes can be made to reduce the number of cancellations caused by this rule. The impact on travelers on international flights will be greater because there are fewer options for getting people to their destination.

Sounds entirely sensible, so the DOT will probably ignore it. Even worse, I bet Secretary LaHood will once again come out beating his chest and attacking these guys for actually doing real statistical analysis. I really hope I’m proven wrong on that point, but I don’t have much faith.

What do you think?

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