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.

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