First Month Under the Three Hour Ground Delay Rule Sees More Travelers Inconvenienced


Back at the end of April, the rule enacting massive fines to airlines who keep people on an airplane on the ground for more than three hours went into effect. The Department of Transportation just released May’s results and the numbers show that more travelers were inconvenienced. Have you been reading articles about how ground delays are way down? Those aren’t looking at the whole picture. There were fewer ground delays than the previous year, but cancellations were up significantly.

On-time percentage in May 2010 was 79.9 percent across all reporting airlines. It was 80.5 percent in 2009, so it was comparable in that respect. Then we look at cancellations. In 2010, 1.24 percent of flights were canceled. Back in 2009? It was only 0.88 percent. Had the May 2009 rate held through in 2010, nearly 2,000 fewer flights would have been canceled in May of this year. If you assume an average of 100 people on a flight, you get almost 200,000 people who were inconvenienced this year that wouldn’t have been inconvenienced last year. Many have said that it was a small increase in cancellations. That seems pretty big to me.

Now, let’s look at the number of lengthy ground delays. In May 2009, there were 34 flights stuck on the ramp for more than 3 hours. This year, there were 5. If we stick with that 100 passenger per flight number, then we’re at 3,400 people who weren’t sitting on a plane on the ground for more than 3 hours this year. Remember, that compares to an increase of nearly 200,000 people who were inconvenienced by cancellations. Let me put this in a pretty picture:

May Ground Delays Vs Cancellations


Are we really making a fair comparison here? After all, there’s no way to directly attribute all the additional cancellations to this rule. There are differences in weather that could also cause large swings. But the increase in cancellations was spread out across airlines. Of the 18 reporting airlines, two-thirds reported an increase in the number of cancellations. Weather alone is not going to cause that to be spread across the country, though it can certainly count for some of it.

But that doesn’t really matter. There’s an even better way to look at this. If only 1.5 percent of those additional cancellations were due to the ground delay rule, then more people still would have been inconvenienced by higher cancellations than were saved from three hour delays. And that assumes that the reduction in long ground delays was entirely due to the new rule, something that’s highly unlikely.

But let’s not stop there. Lets look at the five long ground delays. Four of them were on United in Denver on May 26. That was the day that not only saw thunderstorms roll through the airport, but it also saw a tornado hit. Yeah, think the weather was bad? Maybe we can forgive four airplanes being stuck for that long.

The last one was Delta flight 2011 from Atlanta to Dallas/Ft Worth on May 28. Both airports saw thunderstorms that afternoon, but Atlanta had more than an inch and a half of rain. It was an awful day.

The Delta flight was stuck on the ground for 3 hours and 2 minutes. Yeah, that’s right. It went a mere two minutes over the limit. So I asked Delta what happened. Apparently, the airplane was in a “bad spot” on taxiway and there was lightning so the ramp workers couldn’t come out to meet the airplane. Had the airplane come back to the gate, it would have canceled and the passengers wouldn’t have gotten out of town for at least 10 to 12 hours.

That’s just one more example of when a 3 hour and 2 minute delay isn’t nearly as bad as the alternative. Of course, Kate Hanni, the director of thinks it’s a good idea to gloat. She has been quoted as saying “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”

Despite Kate’s claim, there is nothing to gloat about. More people are being inconvenienced than before. So, Kate, I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.

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51 comments on “First Month Under the Three Hour Ground Delay Rule Sees More Travelers Inconvenienced

  1. I do not think that there is more total inconvenience now. Personally, I would much rather have my flight cancelled than sit through a four hour ground delay. First of all, being delayed for hours in the terminal is far more pleasant (read: less unpleasant) than being delayed for hours stuck on the plane. Second, when a flight is cancelled, particularly with advanced notice, you have options: get confirmed on the next flight with an open seat, cancel the trip if the weather is so bad that nothing’s going out, etc. Certainly not ideal, but preferable to many-hour ground delays.

    Sometimes, the airlines can’t get all their flights out. This rule encourages airlines to cancel flights to reduce the number of planes trying to get out when conditions simply don’t allow it. I think that’s a good thing.

    1. I wonder if you’d feel the same way if due to full flights, you can’t get confirmed on a new flight for several days and either have to forego the trip (not too easy to do if you are trying to get home) or sit at the airport trying to get an open seat on standby.

      1. For leisure travelers, a cancellation is a minor annoyance, it may shorten the vacation by a day or two. For the business traveler, it is one of the worst things possible, as if we are on the last flight of the night and only have two days home, the cancellation effectively kills the weekend at home (which is usually full of things to take care of) since Saturday morning is spent flying, and with some exhaustion Saturday afternoon preventing anything major from happening only leaving Sunday to get things that were supposed to be accomplished over the weekend done.

    2. In theory, you may be right, but of course there is a but ;)

      When a flight is cancelled to avoid the 3h-rule, that is likely to happen while you´re already on that plane or on the way to the airport so there is little to no advance notice. In that case, getting confirmed on another flight may not be as easy as there will be a planeload of people trying to get confirmed onto a flight that likely is already filled with its own planeload of people.

      1. I’m curious whether that’s really the case. Is there a way to find the percentage of cancellations that occurred after the flight pushed back from the gate before and after the rule was announced (because most airlines implemented their policy changes between the announcement of the policy and the date the fines began), or some other relevant statistic?

        My anecdotal impression is that this policy is really prodding airlines to make the hard decisions and reduce capacity when weather doesn’t let them fly their full schedule, and I think that’s a good thing. Yes, to some extent it reduces the airlines’ flexibility to get flights out when conditions change (as they do). Of course canceling flights inconveniences people, but it’s better to be as up front as operationally possible. If my flight’s going to be cancelled, the earlier, the easier it is to find the small number of open seats on the flights that do go.

        Partly, my objection is to Cranky comparing 196k passengers inconvenienced by cancellations to 3k passengers inconvenienced by very long ground delays. The vast majority of those 196k passengers were probably inconvenienced far less than those 3k passengers subject to long ground delays in 2009; I suspect that many if not most of the 196k were re-acommadated quite quickly, whereas all of the 3k were quite severely inconvenienced. I need a more revealing statistic to be convinced that this is a bad thing.

        Also, hasn’t the economy meant that airports and planes were closer to capacity in May 2010 than May 2009, which would also lead to more congestion and cancellations irrespective of the new rule?

        1. Alex, with airlines running as they are, you’re not going to find a flight for a long time in many cases.

          While being stuck on a plane isn’t a fun thing, if you told people that an airline could get you there, just 4 hours late, most people would go for that four hours. Lavs etc should of course be working.

          The problem is the FAA trying to solve the problem that happens 0.000042% of the time. Unfortunately outliers and extreme exceptions happen. Why hamper the normal exceptions?

          I think this whole topic has been dramatically affected by framing. Kate Hanni phrases this with terms such as “Hostage” and “Prisoner” which are inaccurate, and incorrect. The airline industry uses correct, but non-scare terms such as inconvenienced. (for both those affected by the cancellations to avoid the three hour rule, as well as those who sit on a plan for more than three hours.)

          The thing is the rule as implemented doesn’t affect the most egregious cases, such as the long delay in Minnesota, since this was _after_ the plane landed due to irregular operations.

          1. Of course Kate Hanni is over the top, but “inconvenienced” is underselling the discomfort. An adverb like “severely” might be more appropriate. :)

            Certainly there are things about the rule that should be improved by the FAA. The fact that 2:59 is no fine but 3:01 is a huge fine stands out; something like a small fine after 2:00 that gets bigger for longer delays would probably be better. Such a fine could probably be structured to remove the incentive for planes to pull out of line when they’re 15 minutes from takeoff (the relatively small increment in the fine for 15 extra minutes wouldn’t be worth the cost of returning to the gate), which is certainly an egregious regulatory failure.

            Some mechanism for getting planes into the takeoff queue without closing the aircraft door if it’s clear there’s going to be an hour-plus wait would also help in circumstances where there’s a gate that’s available. As someone suggested, not requiring airlines to report on time departures (since it’s on time arrivals that matter anyway) might also help by reducing conflicting demands of the airlines.

            The point is that this fine establishes the principle that long ground delays are unacceptable. With that incentive, the airlines should work with the FAA to find ways to eliminate 3+ hour ground times, however rare they are, and the FAA should be receptive.

            Also, I don’t buy the assertion that it’s now common for planes to pull out of the takeoff queue at 2:45 when they think they’re 20 minutes from takeoff but that 3+ hour times on the ground from push-back to takeoff are exceedingly rare. Clearly, in that situation, I’d rather take off than have the flight cancelled. What I’m saying is that pro-active, advance cancellations are much easier to deal with than cancellations after multiple hours on the plane, and my anecdotal experience is that this rule has led to more pro-active cancellations.

            Something like the FAA evaluating every case (no fine here because the airline had a legitimate reason to think they’d be taking off in 20 minutes) probably isn’t practical if for no other reason than it would mean the airline wouldn’t know whether they’re going to be subject to the fine in this particular case or not, which is good for nobody.

          2. Most people would rather get to their destination, even if they’re late.

            I think an airline has an obligation to provide working toilets and free water for long ground delays. Optimally they’d also offer snacks as well.

            JetBlue has long stated that they care less about their ontime statistics, as they’d rather run a plane late, and get the passengers there, than to cancel it and delay their passengers.

            The horror stories were and are horrendous, but airlines want to keep their planes moving, thats the only time when they make money, and if that plane doesn’t get to its destination, it means a plane isn’t in the right spot and they might even have to fly it or another plane empty to get it in the right spot, which costs them a lot.

          3. With flights running so full appx 85% and using the 100 folks on a flight it would take the next 6 or 7 flights to get all those folks on the next planes. If you have a connecting flight you would be out of luck, remember if it is a weather delay and airlines don’t need to feed you or put you up in a hotel if the next flight is the next day. I will take 4 hours on a plane before spending 4, 6, 8, 24 hours hoping to get on a plane.

        2. Alex, yes there is (or at least there should be). If there’s one undeniably positive thing that Kate’s group did, she at least got BTS to start reporting better data in their delays. Starting in late 2008, BTS now reports information on gate returns and what not. It had already reported cancellation data. You should be able to calculate what you want from that.

        3. In answer to the question regarding how many flights pushed back from the gate and were later cancelled, in April 2010 (before the rule) there were 217. In May 2010 (after the rule) there were 355. However, one month does not make a trend. In April and May 2009 (long before the rule) there were 396 and 278 respectively. So looking at that data in isolation isn’t useful.

          The question is, how many flights are being cancelled solely because of the rule? One indicator, as Cranky has shown, is to look at overall cancellation statistics. But that is only part of the picture, and as he admits, inconclusive.

          It seems to me that a more effective way to look at this is to compare, month-to-month, the number of flights that left the gate, were delayed for, let’s say two hours or more, and how many of those were cancelled versus those that reached their destinations.

          I’ll spare you the monthly data, and provide totals so that this doesn’t turn into an encyclopedia. The following stats are based on my own analysis of BTS data. I downloaded over ten million records of airline performance data to conduct this analysis. I have a fairly extensive track record with these statistics, and I’ve found that the BTS summaries are sometimes wrong, so I always use the raw data.

          For the period from October 2008 through April 2009, the most complete data available, the total number of flights with a taxi-out or longest ground time greater than 119 minutes was 7,969.

          FYI – Airlines report “longest ground time” when there’s a situation where a flight leaves a gate, returns and is cancelled or leaves a second time. BTS calls them multi-gate departures or operations, at least for the purpose of statistics.

          Of those 7,969 flights, 555 were canceled, or 7%. You could conclude that the data show that even after two hours, a passenger had a 93% chance of getting to his or her destination unencumbered by overnight stays and other inconveniences, expenses, etc. On the other hand, 46 of those flights, not counting diversions, sat on the tarmac for a brain-splitting 5 hours or more, and that’s why we’re in this mess in the first place.

          If you look at the same data for May 2010, 322 flights had taxi-out or multi-gate ground times of two hours or more. Fifty of those were canceled, or 15% – more than double the pre-rule average. But overall airline on-time performance was also down, so again, one month of data is not enough to draw conclusions one way or the other by proponents or opponents. Only time will tell. But this will be a better indicator, IMO, than trying to figure out how many overall cancellations were due to the rule versus otherwise.

          May 2009 had 355 taxi-out or multi-gate ground times of two hours or more, 21 of which were canceled (6% compared to 15% in May 2010).

          If you look at the historical data for three-hour taxi-outs and multi-gate ops, the picture is also interesting. For October 2008 through April 2010, there were 839 flights with taxi-out times of three hours or more, and 4 of those were canceled (.4%). During that same period, there were 305 multi-gate operations of 3 hours or more, and 165 of those were canceled. So 309/1143*=27%, meaning that even after three hours, on average passengers had a 73% chance of reaching their destination. Conversely, you also had a .5% chance of sitting on the tarmac for 5 hours or more (46/7969=.005).

          * There was one unlucky flight of passengers that fell into both categories.

          I could extend this out to 4 and 5 hours, but after that it seems counterproductive. I would hope that even Cranky would realize that there has to be a limit somewhere. The point is that this (above) seems to me to be a better method of measuring the effects and efficacy of the rule, versus looking at cancellations alone. It would be convenient if BTS would provide tables with this data on their website, because all that was a lot of work.

          June and July of 2009 combined for a whopping 429 three-hour tarmac delays last year. It should be interesting.

          1. This is great stuff Mark. Thanks for pulling it together. It is a good measure to review for sure. It does, of course, leave out flights that were pre-canceled that could have potentially gone, but of course, no measure is perfect. The only way we could do much better is if the airlines started talking more, but for some odd reason, they want to keep quiet.

            But I think this is a really helpful and useful measure. Thanks.

  2. I agree that the rule is less than ideal. But if you’re gonna have a rule, it needs to be followed. 3 hours and 2 minutes isn’t much different than 3 hours. But where do you draw the line? Is 3 hours and 10 minutes okay? 3 hours and 20 minutes?

    Debating the stupidity of the rule is one thing. Randomly enforcing it is another.

    1. The rule, as written is full of holes. And the DL flight is one of those. If there is excessive lightning in the area does this rule now require airlines to risk the lives of their employees to bring a plane of children… err.. passengers to the gate? If so, then the DOT rule violates OSHA rules. Which misguided government agency rules the day?

      In short the rule was misguided from the start, applied to a fraction or a fraction of a percent of the flights, and fails to put blame on the airports and ATC (another misguided government agency arm) for causing some strandings.

  3. I was at LGA in May, and we were finally at the front of the takeoff line when our plane was forced to return to the gate to avoid breaking the 3 hour rule. I ended up missing my connection in IAH and was forced to overnight at the airport until the next morning. If not for this genius rule I probably would’ve made my connection, so this rule created a 12 hour delay for me. And since this flight wasn’t cancelled, it’s not even counted in Cranky’s total. If anything, Cranky’s passenger total *underestimates* the total number of inconvenienced passengers, since some flights are just forced to return to the gate and are not cancelled.

    1. See, that’s the thing that really bugs me about this rule. Granted, the following is pretty ambiguous, but if you’re “making clear progression to the head of the taxi queue and take off is imminent” (my words) you shouldn’t be subject to the three-hour rule penalties. Somewhere, there’s a balance, but this isn’t it.

      (I’m 6’1″ and 240 lbs. I have visions of sitting in a cramped CRJ-200 somewhere for hours on end. I’d rather be waiting in the terminal, and no rule forces the airlines to cancel the flight instead of delaying it and allowing the passenger to wait in the terminal. No rule other than crew issues, that is.)

  4. No one wants delays, but some like weather are out of human hands. Seems like the rule should have been in the simplest form of you return to the gate if the toilets are not working (or need to be emptied), provide food and water, and set a higher time just sitting out there.

    If other planes have been sitting out there for hours already, it seems like the airport shouldn’t be having planes leaving the gate in the first place. That would clog taxi ways even more.

    It seems that airlines/airports don’t know what to do when something doesn’t go as planned.

    1. Interesting point. If this was fair, the airlines would be able to declare “forced deboarding” to the airport and they’d have to provide certain resources, such as a gate with boarding ramp, or at minimum a set of stairs and buses to a safe location. If not they’d get fined, or the FAA would reduce the fine.

  5. I also respectfully disagree with Alex. I’d rather get to where I’m going late, than be stuck in another city WITHOUT a seat on a plane. At least during a delay you’re IN a seat, rather than bouncing from gate to gate hoping for for a seat, possibly after a night of sleeping on the floor or five hours in a hotel.

    My example for the list: June 2 ORD-DEN 7pm. Storms close westbound departures, the row of planes all taxi over to a pad and shutdown the engines. Thanks to Channel 9 we can hear the pilot discuss options with control. It’s not as simple as “using another runway,” since the alternative runway had approaching jets stacked up tight. Control called approach to open a slot (which took a good half hour,) when ours arrived the weather was bad again.

    Taxiing across O’Hare to yet another runway we finally got out about about 1 hours and 30 minutes late. Thanks to Channel 9 passengers can actually hear what’s going on and appreciate the finess that the pilots and ATC show in bad weather situations. (Except for the guy in front of me who groaned loudly when the pilot declined taking off into the rebuilding storm.)

    Had the storms persisted and that three hour marked arrived I would be quite annoyed to have returned to the gate, deboarded and figured out where to sleep for the night. (Like Eddi above) I arrived home late, but I was in my own bed, and didn’t miss a morning of work either.

    These situations are far different than the occasional story where pax can’t depart due to regulatory issues, (like the recent VX and Rochester MN incident.)

    1. I was going ORD-LAX on the same exact day (6/2) and waited on the tarmac in the plane for 1h 45m. Plus add two small children and a wife. I was praying the weather would clear because I knew there was no way 4 people were getting confirmed on another flight anytime soon. And we were prepared (extra food, water, games, etc,etc) so it was not bad, but was worried this 3hour rule was going to wreck havoc on a vacation trip. Luckily it worked out.

      The rule stinks to be blunt.

  6. I was on a flight from EWR-ATL that was delayed because of this rule.

    There were storms in the northeast, which means flights out of Newark were a disaster. First they delayed the flight from 4:50 to 6:10, but gave me a few hours notice of that…so no biggie. They were still late for the 6:10 schedule, but we backed away from the gate at 6:35. They immediately parked us on the tarmac. We were not in a taxiway line; just sitting in a holding area. We waited for over two hours as the storms rolled through and the airport was completely closed during much of that time. I think they should have just waited; not let the flight board. I mean, if you know the weather’s bad and you can’t leave, why put the people on the plane and make them sit there? The reality is there are at least two reasons. 1) The airlines have to report their on-time performance, so they don’t want to be any more late leaving the gate than they have to, and 2) Delta only has a few gates in Newark, so they may have needed that same gate for another aircraft.

    When things opened-up, we were something like #15 in line. But then at 9:00 they said we were going back to the gate. Apparently the 3-hour clock starts ticking when cabin doors close, and they have to be back at the gate with the door open before the 3 hour mark. We were in the taxi line, and were probably only about 15 minutes from the runway. But Delta wasn’t confident that we would be off the ground before we’d hit the 3 hour mark, and they weren’t going to risk getting hit with fees of “up to” $27,500 per passenger under the new rule.

    So back to the gate we went. We lost our spot in line. They decided to refuel. Some people chose to leave the flight, which meant digging their bag out from the belly. We sat there for an hour without a clue when we’d be able to leave. They said we could get off the plane if we wanted to, but they wouldn’t wait for anybody once they got clearance to leave…so most folks stayed. A few folks joined the flight and were given a good natured ribbing about needing to be properly initiated before joining the flight. :) At 10:10 we finally backed away again, and went airborne at 10:30 (four hours after initial push-back). I was back on the ground at 00:20, 5 hours behind schedule.

    This new rule, which is supposed to prevent passengers from being “held hostage” on delayed flights ended-up costing me an extra hour and a half. It cost the nice couple next to me a night in a hotel, since they missed their connection, which they would have made if we hadn’t gone back to the gate.

    To be fair, the cabin crew was spectacular. They were very quick to roam the aisles with water, and they opened bags of snacks in the galley. The captain kept us as well informed as he could. No complaints with Delta at all. The FAA, on the other hand…needs to provide some flexibility. This 3-hour rule is about as ridiculous as “zero tolerance” policies. When you’re as close to take-off as we were, it’s stupid to have to turn around.

    1. The reality is there are at least two reasons. 1) The airlines have to report their on-time performance, so they don’t want to be any more late leaving the gate than they have to, and 2) Delta only has a few gates in Newark, so they may have needed that same gate for another aircraft.

      More likely #2 than #1. Airline on-time performance is noted as arrivals within 15 minutes of schedule. While airlines have internal goals for departure, it’s not what’s reported to the feds.

  7. James said, “Except for the guy in front of me who groaned loudly when the pilot declined taking off into the rebuilding storm.” Channel 9 would have been a real thrill after takeoff. “WIND SHEAR WIND SHEAR, TERRAIN TERRAIN CLIMB CLIMB!!!” These would be example of the warning systems sound during the departure you could have heard.
    Also if you prefer the cancellation to the delay, consider that yours won’t be the only airline if its due weather. Now start calling around for a hotel room for the night. The airlines will be of little help, because they are not responsible for cancellations due to weather.
    Sometimes planes have to push off the gate because of infrastructure factors, that is a ten dollar way of saying lack of gate space. LGA is a good example of that, a mid 20th century layout dealing with 21st century air traffic.

    1. Now start calling around for a hotel room for the night. The airlines will be of little help, because they are not responsible for cancellations due to weather.

      Well, they are in Europe, through somehow some airlines (eg Ryanair) flagrantly violate this.

      Perhaps removing the “weather” loophole (and enforcing the regulation) would solve the cancellations problem: Itd be too expensive to cancel.

  8. Let’s talk about JFK airport during international push. Around 4-7pm there are a lot of airplanes taxiing out the runway. This alone can cause quite the line of planes. I have been #15, #30, etc. Add in some weather and that number can get to #60 and #89 (yup I have been 89 in line to take off). That is way over 3 hours of taxi time.

    I agree with Cranky’s article. More people are inconvienced because of this rule. People, the airlines don’t just cancel the flights. You board up, thinking you are going to get home, taxi out and sit for whatever reason. Then when the 3 hour hits, you either taxi back to the gate to let everyone off (earlier in the day) so the passengers can get food and restrooms and the aircraft can get serviced OR the flight cancels. Cancelations happen alot of times in the evening when crews start to time out from their duty days.
    When your evening flight cancels last minute at night most likely you will not be able to get on another flight and if all hotels are booked, you may end up spending the night in the airport.

    I will tell you I HATE delays on the aircraft too but I would rather get to my destination and when I fly as a passenger, I come prepared with a bottle of water and a sandwich or snack.

    1. Megan, I hope I’m not misunderstanding your post…but the fact that they have 89 planes in line should not be an excuse to keep passengers on the plane longer than 3 hours. If the line is that bloody long, they should wait to board passengers closer to the actual departure time. This would save passengers from being seat-bound, would save fuel, and generally make the process happier for everyone.

      Also, my experience differs with your explanation. At the 3 hour mark, we did go back to the gate, but we DID NOT get off. That’s the stupid part about this whole deal. They’re required to go back to the gate and let people off if they want to leave. But they made it very clear that as soon as the revised paperwork cleared, we were going to taxi back out. They WOULD NOT wait for passengers. So sure…get off, but don’t think you can go get food somewhere, or the plane may be gone. I don’t fault the airline for this at all. At least we were able to stand-up, stretch, use the lav, get some water, etc.

      1. Well half of this is the FAA’s fault, as they won’t let a plane get in line to take off until its pushed back from the gate. So the airline could try to wait for the line to disappear, but at an airport such as JFK that’ll never happen until say 3 am or maybe later, so the plane will never take off.

        1. Saying it’s the FAA’s fault doesn’t change the fact that having 89 planes in line is stupid. I know JFK is notorious for this, and I’ve heard that they’re testing a program that actually allows you to hold a virtual place in line. They only keep some small number of planes in a physical line. The rest are at the gate, in a holding area, etc. I sure hope they can figure that out. But that would be too much like right. :)

      2. You don’t have to go back to the gate to allow passengers to get up. I was once on a PHL-ORD flight that was delayed due to snow in ORD. We pushed back from the gate hopeful but things didn’t go well and our flow time got pushed way back. We parked on a taxiway on the opposite side of the runway from the active line for takeoff, and the seat belt sign was turned off and we could get up, use the lav, etc. A better wheels up time was ultimately secured and the seat belt sign went back on, everyone who was up went back to their seats, and we were able to taxi to the end of the runway and take off.

        Obviously, you can’t do that if you’re in a long, slow moving line, but if the aircraft is parked somewhere on the field where it won’t move moving for a while, I don’t see why the seat belt sign has to be kept on.

        I’m a firm believer that it’s better to be out near the runway ready to go than sitting around at the gate. I may have posted this story here before, but I remember one time I was flying to SFO on United and there were two other flights (another UA and an Alaska), all were delayed due to SFO weather. Both UA flights pushed back from the gate on time and waited near the end of the runway, while AS waited at the gate. An earlier wheels up time came for AS, but it was only three minutes away so they wouldn’t be able to make it; the ground controller was able to get it reassigned to the other UA flight (which was scheduled to leave before mine) instead, since they were in a position to be able to use it in time.

        1. The other thing is the airport could help out in instances like this. If they know the line is going to be say two hours, they could put together a line of planes, park them somewhere, and not move them for say an hour or so, saving fuel, and allowing passengers to roam the cabin and use the bathroom, etc..

    1. I wouldn’t go that far. She got pissed off and did something about it other than complain on a message board somewhere. That’s more than can be said for a lot of people.

  9. The whole “on-time” departure statistic is BS. They report whether the cabin door was closed on-time, not whether the flight actually went anywhere. So if a flight left the gate on-time, but sat for 2:45, returned to the gate for an hour, then taxied for another 2:45 before departure….that would still count as an on-time departure. What a joke. If we’re going to look at that number at all, we also need to know about on-time ARRIVALS.

  10. The airline is not compelled to cancel a flight just because the aircraft has to return to the gate after 3 hours.

    1. Their other choice is to pay an astronomical per-person fine that costs vastly more than recrewing/reaccomodating that and other flights it may affect. And since 99 times out of 100 it’s weather related, the airline doesn’t owe passengers any compensation. It’s simple economics really.

    2. Often they are. Rest rules say that as long as the door is closed and the airplane is taxiing, the crew can finish the flight. But once you come back to the gate and open the door, the crew then will have to be legal to fly under the max rules. Often, if it’s a weather issue, that won’t work, especially at the end of the day when crews have already been flying for awhile.

      1. Not totally true. Take a look at the Whitlow rule, that says you have to be legal up to the point of takeoff. As a dispatcher, I have had to inform crews of the need to return to the gate due to Whitlow rule violation, which is tough for passengers due to the fact that those flight are generally late in the day and typically cancel once returning to the gate. But, they are FAA rules so they must be followed.

        1. Ah, so I’m a bit off. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s still a big difference. If the door opens, won’t they have to be planned to be legal throughout the entire flight?

  11. I think it would be interesting to see a survey of passengers taken after flights were canceled because of the new rule. Questions like would you have preferred to wait out the delay on the plane and get to your destination late or are you satisfied to be off the plane and looking for another way to reach your destination.
    I’ll bet regardless of how well crafted the survey questions would be the end answer would be that people would like to try to wait out most delays and get to their destination.

  12. My answer on how bad this rule is depends on the circumstances. If the airline uses the 3-hour rule as an excuse to pre-cancel flights, and it’s the outbound flight we’re talking about, I’d much rather have them pre-cancel than deal with a multi-hour delay leaving, plus a potential misconnect. It sucks to have to delay a vacation or business trip, but dorking around at home or the office while trying to figure out other options isn’t the worst thing in the world.

    On the other hand, if they pre-cancel (or a return to the gate at 2:55) occurs while I’m trying to get back home, or worse, at an intermediate city while waiting for a connection, then I’m not going to be happy. Witness what happened at LGA today. AA pre-canceled a whole boatload of flights because of the weather. Luckily, we’re not leaving for home until tomorrow, but if I had been planning to leave today, I’d most likely be stuck in LGA. Possibly for several days while they tried to re-accommodate everybody due to passenger loads. And oh by the way, since it’s due to weather, the airline owes me squat, so I either get to shell out several hundred extra dollars on a hotel, or sleep in the airport until they figure something out. Yeah, sounds great to me. Give me 4 hours stuck on a taxiway, please!!!

  13. I am really delighted to see that 200,000 people did not have to suffer being held prisoner on flights for 6, 7 hours or more, without working lavs, food, water. Kate is right, that is a huge improvement.

    Yes, I would rather risk being stuck in another city for a few days, camping out in a nice hotel room or at least in the airport where there is decent food, space to walk and stretch, and power for internet connections. And that is the worst case scenario, in all likelihood you’ll find another flight the next day assuming it isn’t the day before Thanksgiving. Much better than being stuck on some hellish plane with no info on when you might actually take off.

    1. Let’s not start spreading misinformation here. That’s 200,000 people who WERE inconvenienced because their flights were canceled. Only 3,400 fewer people were on an airplane on the ground for more than 3 hours.

  14. I would be curious, though, how much the winter storms this February affected the cancellation rate so far this year. I was flying during this time and it ended up taking almost a week to get home – I think at final count there were 9 different flights that I was booked on that ended up getting canceled. Obviously bad weather happens every year, but I think this particular weather event may be important because it more or less simultaneously shut down Dulles, National, BWI, Logan, JFK, and LaGuardia, all major passenger transit points, for multiple days in a row.

    I’m not arguing that this rule isn’t going to increase cancellations – it almost certainly is. But I think there are some confounding factors here. Additionally, it seems like it would be more relevant to compare the cancellation rates since the rule was enacted, rather than the beginning of the year.

  15. What about modifying the rule such that after more than 2 hours:
    – If the plane eventually takes off, no fine
    – If the plane eventually returns to the airport, they get fined
    And then after 4 hours, they get fined no matter what happens (more than the amount above for 2-4 hours)
    Of course, the times and sizes of the fines can be adjusted.
    This scheme would mean that if the plane was stuck for 2 hours or so, the pilots would decide to return to the gate if it was unlikely that they would take off soon (such as a ground stop at the destination), but if they were likely to depart soon (in line for take off), it would be better for everyone if they did end up departing.

    1. As time goes by, hopefully more data will be available to make hopefully more “informed” decisions how to proceed. Time will tell.

  16. my two cents:

    everyone here seems to be assuming that if the three hour rule forces you to return to the gate you will not get where you are going for at least overnight and possibly several days. This just simply isn’t reality.

    I *always* find that in IRROPS i get on the very next flight, or at worst the one after that. Sometimes my original flight goes out eventually but i get rebooked on a flight that gets there at the same time or even SOONER than my original flight would have if it had left and arrived on time. I realize my luck wont hold forever but I’m just illustrating that the scenarios assumed here are even LESS likely than my “luck”

    on the flip side – if we are on the tarmac for over 3 hours we ARE GUARANTEED to be on the tarmac for over three hours. Personally I’d rather go back to the gate if it is ONE hour. I prefer breathable air, ability to get food/water, ability to find alternate mode of transport (or go home if flying out of my home city), ability to use a real restroom, charge my phone/laptop, or stretch my legs.

    additionally arriving 4 hours late doesnt help me any more than cancelling the flight – its just more miserable. Chances are if its 4 hours late I will miss my connecting flight/meeting/wedding/training/conference/party/cruise ship or whatever I may be flying to. So i’d rather the flight get cancelled and go get a hot meal, a cold beer, and a bed to sleep in – assuming its the off chance that i dont get rebooked on the next flight out.

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