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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32 Comments on "A Modest Proposal on Tarmac Delays"

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David Z
Guest

Sounds reasonable. ‘Nuff said.

If only DOT will at least consider…

Dan
Guest

I’m gonna hafta “me too” on this one.

Nick Barnard
Member
I think the most important thing about this is the defined fees. The airlines want to know their costs of keeping a flight on the ramp for 3.25 hours and getting it in the air but right now they don’t. I’d also think of adding two things to the chart: 1. Scale the fines by flight length, a 1 hour flight shouldn’t have the same fine as a 4.5 hour flight. I’m much more willing to wait if its a longer flight. Still publish it in table where airlines can know their exact costs. 2. Provide a credit on the… Read more »
SirWired
Guest

I’m not thrilled about the “We really, really, tried after 2 1/2 hours to get back to the gate” idea. That doesn’t solve the airlines not having any gates or tarmac available to actually accommodate the returned flight.

Dan
Guest

Fair enough.

Nick Barnard
Member

Maybe airports should have to maintain a gate just for this purpose. It’ll drive costs up, and mean we all have to pay a wee bit more, but it’d solve that problem..

Frank
Guest
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. ====================================================== This goes to show up that FLIGHT CREWS are being worked to maximum hours or long days. 10 to 12 hours is an average day for most crews. Now add in a tarmac delay and crew legalities will attribute to most cancellations. We can NOT fly past 15 HOURS nor should we. I’ve been put into several situations this… Read more »
Frank
Guest

You’re right, they admitted in this article, they didnt know what contributed to most cancellations:http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-09/u-s-airline-cancellations-rose-62-in-september-after-tarmac-delay-rule.html

Roger
Guest

How about that the airlines overscheduled flights? In the past they could hold people hostage for several hours, all while pretending that they had these time slots for departures. Now they can’t get away with this.

I only take the claims of the new rules hurting when someone can show that there was not overscheduling in the first place, but sadly none of the reports ever seem to look at that.

Nick Barnard
Member

So for the airlines not to over schedule flights they’d have to agree how many slots each of them get at any given airport. Once they do that, they’re running afoul of anti-trust laws that prevent them from dividing up a market. (Which is what dividing slots up is.)

I think there have been a few cases of airlines asking for limited anti-trust exemptions to do this, but I forgot what happened with that.

Roger
Guest
You do know they already agree on slots? Slots can be bought, sold or traded. The problem is when the airport capacity is 60 departure slots an hour under perfect weather conditions and the airlines schedule 65 for that hour (or even 60 for that matter). All it takes is one problem to push departures further and further out. I’ve read articles about how airlines “have” to offer peak time departures because competitors do when there isn’t the actual airport capacity to back them. An example article about slots and capacity: http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/2009-01-15-dot-laguardia_N.htm And from CF himself, although the conclusion about… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

Yes, a few airports are slot controlled, JFK, LGA and DCA come to mind. But a vast majority of airports are not slot controlled.

Roger
Guest
If this rule is going to be blamed on extra cancellations then what reason other than insufficient capacity would there be for those extra cancellations? (Yes weather, airspace etc locally and elsewhere could affect the capacity.) Without the rule it was up to airline discretion what to do when they (and their competitors) were trying to funnel too much traffic into too little capacity. Now at least they have a hard deadline and so do their competitors. An alternate rule would be to allow any passengers to get off the plane on request after some amount of time has passed… Read more »
JamesK
Guest
Airlines are publicly-traded corporations and as such have a primary duty to maximize the return on investment of the shareholders. They can be sued by shareholders for failing to do so. Similarly, any appearance of collusion between companies can be prosecuted under anti-trust law. One of the few exceptions is when the company is forced by local, state, or Federal law to do something to the contrary. Scheduling is a great example. Differences of mere minutes can drive sales, particularly with online travel agencies. YYZ is case in point: there is a strictly enforced noise abatement rule that restricts departures… Read more »
Frank
Guest

Written by Roger on November 22, 2010.
Reply How about that the airlines overscheduled flights?
=============================================

Wasnt it, YOU, the flying public that wanted choices? Arent the airlines meeting demand? That said, these tarmac delays (over 3 hours) were very, very small compared to how many flights operated on-time or with a delay, even in bad weather.

giles
Guest

Hey, Cranky, I agree, except for point number 5. If the DOT really believes this rule is working so well, they should immediately expand it to small airports and international flights. You will see an additional increase in domestic flight cancellations as the airlines attempt to provide slots for their internationals, which are impossible to protect.
PS. Let’s replace LaHood with Jim Oberstar.

David SF eastbay
Member

The Feds have their hands full right now dealing with the back lash in the media on pat-downs, so this report will go on the back burner and fade away. It may get attention later when the winter snow storms start causing problems and some news outlet picks up on it.

Tim
Guest

I’m don’t know much about the inner workings of this issue (i.e. slot management, etc.), or what the best solution is, but short of an exceptional event, I just cannot wrap my arms around how it is acceptable to keep passengers hostage in their seats for anything past 1 hour without providing comfort and movement that one would have available in flight. Maybe I’ve missed something on this, but exactly what passenger’s ‘rights’ apply to this condition?

jaybru
Member
Pardon my skepticism! I’ve never trusted the airlines giving me the real reasons why a flight may have been delayed, so I am not willing to trust the airlines with “reasons” for cancellations. Be that as it may, have complaints to airlines and to DOT about cancellations gone up since the rules went into effect? I would hope DOT has data to show this one way or the other. If complaints have gone up, I would hope somebody independent, like GAO, would evaluate the data and report on the situation. The above plan recommendations may be perfectly valid, but I… Read more »
Jim Huggins
Guest
I know I’m gonna lose this argument, but I seem to have a love for banging my head against brick walls these days. By your argument, the total number of people “hurt” was higher under this rule. I’ll stipulate to that fact for the moment. But how much were they “hurt”? Was their trip delayed perhaps by only a few hours, during which they could move around in a terminal rather than being confined to an aircraft seat? Or did the delay cause a loss of at least one travel day? Statistics along those lines need to be collected as… Read more »
MeanMeosh
Guest
You bring up a good point in my mind, and that is how the “hurt” differs for each person that’s affected. Take a hypothetical example of a flight from DFW-LAX with a return 3 days later, 115 passengers on board each time. Let’s now pretend that there’s bad weather at DFW at departure. The airline pre-cancels the flight and says nothing’s available until tomorrow. Let’s say 59 passengers live in the area and are originating at DFW, 21 live in LA and are heading back home, and 35 are connecting from somewhere else on their way to LA. For those… Read more »
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