Feds Agree That Tarmac Delay Rule Increases Cancellations

Have I mentioned that I think the federal government has done an excellent job of looking at the tarmac delay rule impact? Don’t fall out of your chair; I’m not talking about the misguided Department of GAO and DOTTransportation (DOT). I’m talking about the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which just put out a study on the rule and a few other air travel issues. It agrees with most of the known universe in saying that the tarmac delay rule is having, say it with me, unintended consequences. In other words, it’s causing increased cancellations.

The GAO’s job is to be a watchdog and to make sure the government isn’t doing anything stupid. As you can imagine, it’s a very busy agency. Not only is it busy, but it does great work. The GAO was asked by a couple of Congressmen to look into a few things around air travel and the result was this report. While it doesn’t draw many conclusions other than saying more info is needed, it makes a very clear assessment of what’s been happening, and not just with the tarmac delay rule.

But let’s start with that rule, since it’s the most visible piece of the review. The GAO said that yes, long tarmac delays had been almost completely eliminated due to the rule. No surprise there. But using multiple statistical models, the GAO found that flights were more likely to cancel between May and September 2010 than they were in that same period in 2009, before the rule was in effect. Here are the details.

Likelihood of Cancellation 2010 vs 2009

But just because flights are more likely to cancel, does that mean it’s because of the rule? Yes, that’s exactly what this chart is isolating.

Results from the tarmac-cancellation model suggest that the implementation of the tarmac delay rule is associated with a greater likelihood of cancellation for flights that taxi-out onto the tarmac. . . . Results from the gate-cancellation model also indicate that the tarmac delay rule is associated with a higher rate of flight cancellation.

The GAO calls out the DOT for its brand of analysis, saying that the DOT analysis is “limited because it includes only a portion of all flights, considers the total number of cancellations instead of the rate of cancellation, and does not control for other factors that can affect cancellations.”

The report is a great read, giving a very clear explanation of the situation that should be required reading for anyone interested in this topic. Maybe some of the so-called “flyer’s rights” activists should cuddle up with this and educate themselves.

For its part, the DOT is ignoring this report saying that the rule needs tweaks, at least publicly. A recent blog post from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the agency’s “analysis shows that our new protections have not directly affected cancellation rates, though we continue to monitor and study these.” Uh huh. I really hope they’re going to seriously study them instead of paying lip service, but I’m somehow skeptical. Shocking, I know.

If you’re curious about the rest of the report, there were some other interesting findings. GAO was asked to look at whether cancellations and delays were more likely at smaller airports, and sure enough, they are. The agency calls out the DOT for not collecting the right data to show this. Since only larger airlines are required to report to the DOT, the data is skewed since smaller cities are served by smaller airlines that don’t have to report performance information. The GAO study worked with FlightStats to get a more complete picture and found dramatic reductions in reliability for smaller towns.

The other piece was around the passenger protections in Europe. We’ve talked about the strict rules in the European Union here before, but is it a good thing? I think the result is not a surprise. “Care and compensation requirements provide protections and benefits for passengers whose flights are disrupted, but they also increase costs to airlines and could increase passengers’ fares.” It also said that the rules aren’t clear and there are real challenges in the way it’s set up.

So what’s the upshot of all this? There were two recommendations for the DOT that came out of this.

  • Collect and publicize more comprehensive on-time performance data to ensure that information on most flights, to airports of all sizes, is included in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics’ database. DOT could accomplish this by, for example, requiring airlines with a smaller percentage of the total domestic scheduled passenger service
    revenue, or airlines that operate flights for other airlines, to report flight performance information.
  • Fully assess the impact of the tarmac delay rule, including the relationship between the rule and any increase in cancellations and how they effect passengers and, if warranted, refine the rule’s requirements and implementation to maximize passenger welfare and system efficiency.

That last one is sort of fluffy in that it doesn’t really tell the DOT to do anything. But maybe now that there’s a concrete report from a fellow government agency, the DOT will take notice and do something about it. (Stop laughing. It could happen. Um, sure it could.)

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