Airlines Reveal Tarmac Delay Cancellation Numbers, but DOT Objects

Last week, I was back in Washington, DC for the first time in about 5 years. What was the occasion? I was invited to speak on a panel at the American Bar Association’s Forum on Air and Space Law Update. We were supposed Cranky Fight DOTto focus on passenger rights, but ultimately, we ended up focusing almost entirely on the 3 hour tarmac delay rule. It was excellent to finally get some hard cancellation numbers from the airlines, but the response from the DOT couldn’t have been more frustrating.

The most interesting thing about the discussion was that airlines actually came prepared with hard numbers, something I’ve wanted to see for a long time. Unfortunately, the DOT’s representative disregarded them with “I don’t know where those numbers come from.” Let me explain in greater detail.

There were five of us on the panel. The other four were:

  • Sam Podberesky- Assistant General Counsel for Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings, DOT
  • Charlie Leocha – Director, Consumer Travel Alliance
  • Denis Barrett – Director, Operations Control, US Airways
  • Leila Lahbabi – Airport Attorney, Charlotte Douglas International Airport

Sam brought the DOT’s basic stance that there were no additional cancellations in 2010 as compared to the previous year, so the rule was great because it killed tarmac delays. That was the argument he used throughout the panel.

I began to argue that a simple year-over-year comparison means nothing because there are far too many other factors, like weather and operational changes, but I was interrupted by Sam to repeat his basic argument for the first of many times.

This is where it got interesting. Denis brought numbers with him regarding the number of flights canceled by US Airways since the implementation of the rule, something that I’ve been hoping to see for ages. He said that including US Airways Express, there have been 927 flights forced to return to the gate because of the three hour rule. Of those 318 canceled.

Those cancellations inconvenienced 16,000 passengers but that wasn’t all. Those airplanes were needed elsewhere after those flights and that meant further flights had to cancel. Another 12,000 people were impacted because of that.

What’s the most interesting stat here? On those 927 flights that returned to the gate, no more than 20 people elected to get off. So even the flights that did eventually go had to take delays just to return to the gate, often without a single person deciding to get off. We’re talking thousands and thousands of impacted passengers here. And that’s just US Airways.

When Sam repeated his original argument, someone from Delta stood up in the audience and said that they also had seen cancellations from this. Delta saw 279 airplanes return to the gate and 88 cancel, but that didn’t include Delta Connection.

Add this to comments made by American’s SVP of Government Affairs Will Ris in an earlier panel that the airline had definitely been forced to cancel more flights because of the rule, and the result seems clear. There has been a serious impact on passengers, and not in a good way.

Charlie jumped in and suggested that the airlines would just need some time to adapt to the rule and that within 18 months, they’d figure it out. The airlines didn’t seem convinced.

I tried to interject once again and say that year-over-year comparisons are not valid. What really matters is comparing what would have happened this year had the rule not been in place, and the airlines are clearly showing that cancellations would have been lower without the rule. Sam clearly didn’t agree.

How could we have two people sitting on the same stage seeing the complete opposite results? I suggested that maybe the DOT and airlines needed to get together to create a reporting standard since clearly that hasn’t happened.

Sam first suggested that it would be technically difficult because some of those flights that airlines reported as canceled would have canceled anyway, but that’s the reason I suggested getting together to create an acceptable standard. He then shrugged it off and sarcastically said, “I’m sure the airlines want to give more data.”

I proposed that the airlines would be happy to give data if it enabled them to help tweak the rule, but that seemed to fall on deaf ears. And that was that.

So where did this leave us? The DOT still says there has been no impact on cancellations (or at least very minimal impact), but Sam did give a little lip service to the problem at the end by saying “whether [the rule is] creating other issues is something we’ll have to look at.”

In the meantime, cancellations continue to mount, if you accept the airline interpretation of the data. And more people end up being inconvenienced than need to be. Hopefully one of these days, the DOT will come around and decide to see how it can really improve the rule instead of just arguing that it hasn’t had a negative impact.

(Visited 74 times, 1 visits today)

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

Leave a Reply

42 Comments on "Airlines Reveal Tarmac Delay Cancellation Numbers, but DOT Objects"

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Brian W
Guest

Nice work Cranky. As a former government lawyer myself, I can’t understand how others in the same position think they’re serving the public interest by spouting the party line and not engaging the public and critics/commentators. The negative consequences flowing from the 3-hr rule seem quite clear both in the abstract and with the addition of the statistics. Thankfully I don’t have to worry about it much because I almost exclusively fly internationally… but thanks for fighting the good fight for everyone else.

Ted
Guest

Arrogance and lack of understanding by the DOT? I’m shocked!!

Dan
Guest

Sam *clearly* had his marching orders on this one…

Crissy
Guest

I find it irritating that the DOT says the party line and doesn’t even care to listen the airlines and what the impact is to all air travelers.

Whether you like the rule or don’t like the rule, denying that there may be an impact tells me that the agency is full of idiots and that they shouldn’t be trusted. Good job!

There’s the party line and then there is stupidity…

Kevin
Guest

Was the panel recorded? If so, can we watch it on c-span or something else?
or a transcript available?

David SF eastbay
Member

Sam sounded like a broken record for the DOT, his needle was stuck in the same spot the whole time. The DOT wants to be right so they don’t look bad on something they must now know they shouldn’t have done.

Ryan
Guest

I wonder what your buddy Kate Hanni has to say about the data? ;)

Roger
Guest

There are some of us who are all for the rule. If there are cancellations then it shows the rule is working! It meant that there were more flights scheduled than the capacity available at the time and circumstances, even allowing for a 3 hour backlog.

The solution going forward is to reduce scheduling or to work out how to improve throughput during the circumstances. It is not allowing the airlines to trap people on planes on the ground for many hours.

ASFalcon13
Guest
Ah, that tired, old argument. That would be an accurate assumption if the factors that lead to cancellations were predictable…but they aren’t, not even remotely. Hell, as a pilot, I can tell you that you can’t get a weather report that’s accurate enough to even do rough flight planning more than 48 hours out…and, as you know, people tend to buy airline tickets more than 48 hours in advance. Using your ideas, the airlines should just assume that Snowmageddon will happen every day of the year, and operate nothing more than a threadbare schedule. And yes, this would be great… Read more »
Roger
Guest

The airlines and airport are welcome to schedule for whatever conditions they want. I never said they should schedule for the worst case every single day and that is obviously not the right thing to do.

But when the conditions are such that there are too many flights for those conditions then something has to give. I’m perfectly happy with cancellations and the rule applies to the competitors too.

ASFalcon13
Guest
And I’m going to have to disagree that cancellations are better than ground delays. I’ll agree that being stuck an a delayed plane for hours sucks, but at least you’re going somewhere eventually. A cancellation means that what was just a delay of a few hours becomes an indefinite wait; if lots of flights are cancelling at once, you may not be getting to your destination for several days. Additionally, as Cranky has pointed out, those cancellations have effects downstream. Passengers on that plane for later flights – ones that weren’t going to be sitting on a delayed plane for… Read more »
Roger
Guest
Well the planes weren’t going anywhere anyway. If they were then there wouldn’t need to be this rule! In addition to cancellations the airline also has the ability to reschedule at the time. For example if there are too many flights at 7am due to conditions then they could reschedule the flight to 1pm or 8pm. Quite simply if the conditions mean an airport can only handle 15 departures an hour and there are 20 per hour scheduled for a few hours then something has to give. Another alternative is to not have massive queues of planes on the taxiways.… Read more »
ASFalcon13
Guest
“Well the planes weren’t going anywhere anyway. If they were then there wouldn’t need to be this rule!” Not necessarily true; the planes could be, and frequently are, back in the queue after something like a lengthy ground hold or re-deice. The 3-hour rule make no distinction for an airplane making progress toward the runway, so, in this common case, the cancellation pulls the plane out of line and freezes it at the gate indefinitely. “In addition to cancellations the airline also has the ability to reschedule at the time.” I’d like to hear from someone in the know, but… Read more »
ferrelled
Member

read another way, USAirways (including commuters) had 927 flights that bumped up against the 3-hour rule and Delta had 279 mainline flights. At a conservative 100 peple per plane avg, that’s 120,000 souls who sat on a plane for almost 3 hours each. Not much in the percentage of things, but I sure as shoot wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting on a plane for 3 hours, let alone for MORE than 3 hours, which I might have been without the rule.

Jim M
Guest

If the choice is between sitting on a plane for 3 hours, or sitting in a terminal for 6 hours because the flight was cancelled, I’ll take the 3 hours easily. All I ask for is some water on the plane if I’m stuck in there and a working toilet. Heck — sometimes a crowded plane is way better than an overcrowded terminal. At least on the plane I am guarenteed a seat.

Roger
Guest

For those of us of above average height plane seats are already a form of torture. Being stuck in them for even longer is even more miserable.

The fix is to have maximum occupancy limits for the terminals and for the airport to ensure comfort for those numbers.

Biggs
Guest
I’m 6’8 (mostly legs) and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who suffers more than me in an airplane seat, but I’d still take 3+hrs to get where I’m going. In the RARE instance even before the law passed where a flight might have to extend past 3hrs, it was still filled with businessmen who had that meeting to catch the next day, families who didn’t have 3 extra days to wait for flights in their 1 week-vacation, etc… and as for the capacity limits and comforts, you forget that everything costs money, that will eventually be passed to… Read more »
BW
Guest

That went over real well in London a few months ago.

cgssad1222
Member

BY GOSH, I BELIEVE YOU’RE ON SOMETHING HERE WORTH READING, & TRUTHFUL!!!
SINCE MY HORROR, I’VE HEARD MANY PEOPLE SAY THEY WILL NEVER FLY, OR AT LEAST UNTIL THE AIRLINES FINDS A CONSCIENCE!
GOOD JOB CRANKY, & THANK YOU!

Yong
Guest

For whatever it means, here are my experiences. I have platinum status with Delta and P. Exec with United. Last 4 years, I was stranded overnight 3 times before the 3 hour rule came into the law. Since then, I have been stranded overnight 4 times in 10 months. Is there a correlation? I do not know for sure but interesting coincident, don’t you think?

jaybru
Member
Are we making progress, or what? Can we first get accurate, independently-verifable numbers as to how many flights were cancelled? Is this so difficult? But, can we get accurate, independently-verifiable data as WHY each flight may have been cancelled? Each side in this matter has its reasons why they may want to give this or that reason. And, isn’t there typically more than one reason for a cancellation? No fan of of the Gov’t here, and I’m sure they are super-defensive, but I’ve lived through a long period of airlines seeming to say to their customers about why a flight… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member

Maybe this rule needs to be tweaked that at 3hrs after pulling away from the gate the pilot should come on and say “We can return to the gate for anyone wanting to get off but you will be stranded until who knows how long unlike the rest of us who will be departing soon. You will also be charged for the fuel we have to use to take you back to the terminal, for the personal who must meet the airplane and if you have checked baggage it will be going to Florida with us.”

David SF eastbay
Member

This is one of those rules in life that the many must pay for the bitching of a few!

EagerTraveler
Guest

As a real traveler, not a road warrior, I appreciate the new rules. In time it is my hope that Airlines will do even more to accommodate customers. They should have been doing the right thing before getting forced to do something the did not want to. Go government go!

Consumer Mike
Guest

As a Consumer, I would sure like to see the DOT get on board and work WITH THE AIRLINES to improve the new rules. I do not understand the DOT mentality to stone wall doing something that would be a win-win situation for all involved (most notable the consumer).

As for my view on Sam Podberesky (DOT), the nation, DOT, airline industry and Consumers would all be better served if this gentleman would retire soon or be transfered to a desk job in Iraq.

tharanga
Guest

From the above, it’s completely impossible to judge how many of those flights would have canceled anyway, under the old rules. So while the airlines brought numbers, they aren’t numbers that tell you much of anything.

Cranky does indeed acknowledge this, if I understand correctly.

iahphx
Member
My wife had our first encounter with the 3-hour rule tonight on a PHL-ATL DL flight. In her circumstances, the rule helped her. She was trying to get from PHL to DSM in the afternoon but the weather gods weren’t cooperating. Every flight was going to misconnect due to delays — except, it would seem, a PHL-ATL-DSM route where she had a two hour layover. The flight left the gate about a half hour late and taxied out to the runway. But then conditions got worse in ATL, and they were told to wait. And wait. And wait some more.… Read more »
Frustrated former flyer
Guest
Frustrated former flyer

The common folk don’t understand how a plane can leave a gate expecting to take off imminently and then have to wait more than 3 hours. What happens to create that kind of delay in the short time it usually takes to taxi out to the runway? And if they know it will be more than two hours before takeoff, why not wait before boarding and leaving the gate so the wait on the plane isnt’ 3 hours? Maybe this would result in fewer cancellations, if indeed the airline numbers are correct.

BW
Guest

During irregular ops, planes are going to stack up somewhere due to reduced capacity. If you leave a plane parked at the gate, that means that gate is not available for the next scheduled arrival. Should the arriving flights wait on the tarmac until the departures can get out? They will on average have less available toilet capacity and catering supplies than a flight that has just pushed back.

Frustrated former flyer
Guest

They put the empty planes somewhere when the flight is cancelled. How about putting them there until it’s time to board them so the gates are not tied up?

Gary
Guest
First off do airlines like or want to keep aircraft on the ground any longer than needed. NO !!! WHY ?? Because they DO NOT make money while they sit on the ground with engines turning or not . When your flight is boarded it has the most current up to the minute info available to the crew and dispatcher and operational personal working your flight. As to why things can change so suddenly when it is perfect outside your aircraft and the runways are only a short taxi ride from the gate. Here is just one example. CAN YOU… Read more »
Consumer Mike
Guest
Gary, I am impressed with your detailed FORCEFUL opinion. Now, if you would only consider using some of that steam to try and influence the DOT to enter into discussions with the airlines and Consumer groups to improve the law and make it a truly team effort. It sounds like you may just be the person to motivate the DOT to move on this in a constructive way. Good Luck! Thank you Cranky for informing us on the conference and reporting on the events which took place, and non-participation of the DOT representative. I, for one, would have never known… Read more »
Frustrated former flyer
Guest
I cannot control the wind, but I can do math, and there is no reason to load another aircraft with passengers if there are already a stack of aircraft experiencing take-off delays just so it can get in line and wait. We aren’t talking about a one- or two- hour delay due to shifting winds. The line was drawn at three hours. I understand problems at the destination can delay take-off, and I certainly don’t want any fliers or crew members getting hurt. Yet, although I understand it can happen, I do not believe take-off delays attributable to very-last-second discovery… Read more »
Gary
Guest

I am Sorry. I should have worte it to read WE DO NOT WANT any mid-airs.
My mistake for not proof reading it right.

kelty
Member
At the supermarket pharmacy or deli counter, you take a number and it assures your place in line. The airports should have a similar system of assigning takeoff positions with instructions to move the aircraft to the line 20 minutes before departure. There is a problem in that the gates may have to be vacated for incoming aircraft so that passengers might have to board earlier, but this is not always a problem. The thing about tarmac delays is that people feel trapped. They are much more comfortable if they have options such as the opportunity to get off if… Read more »