DOT Claim of 3 Hour Rule Success is Superficial and Contradicts DOT’s Previous Stance

Air Traffic Control, Delays/Cancellations, Weather

It was just last month that the Department of Transportation (DOT) said not to rush to judgment after seeing more cancellations and slightly fewer 3 hour delays in May. We needed more time, they said. Well apparently the DOT only thinks that’s the case if the numbers don’t DOTwoFacehelp their cause. Now that June numbers are out, they’re jumping on them as proof of success. Slow down there, DOT. Your base level look at June numbers is way too superficial and smells simply of politics.

On the surface, things looked much better this year for long ground delays, and really, they were. There were three flights that sat on the runway for more than 3 hours during June 2010. In June 2009, that number was a whopping 278. This year, none sat for more than 4 hours. Last year, it was 42.

So did cancellations spike as a result? A little, but not much. Though the DOT would like you to think that both this year and last saw no change at 1.5 percent of flights canceled, that’s only thanks to rounding. In 2009, it was 1.48 percent. In 2010, it was 1.50 percent. So there was a very slight increase. In fact, three fewer flights were canceled this year but with 6,307 fewer flights operating.

Sounds like a tremendous success, right? Well, it’s good news for some, but it’s important to look at other factors year-over-year to see how we may have ended up in this place.

First, we have to remember that after last summer, the airlines did ramp up their efforts to reduce lengthy ground delays. So some of the reduction should be related to previous efforts and not simply the introduction of this rule. We’ll never know exactly what that is. But we can still dig in and see what happened last June. You’ll notice that the weather was significantly better, despite what many have said.

The Air Travel Consumer Report doesn’t give specifics on the flights that were delayed for three hours, but it does do it for the flights delayed more than 4 hours. So let’s focus on those. There were 42 of those, and most of them occurred during specific events. For example, 13 of them (11 at Dulles) happened in Washington on June 3, 2009. That’s the day that thunderstorms came and sat on top of Dulles from 8p to 10p.

So the weather was bad, but something had to be just as bad this year, right? Nope. In June, there were a couple days with quick passing storms, but the only day that saw sustained thunderstorms over a long period was June 28 when storms sat on Dulles from 145p to 3p, still a much shorter time period, especially when you’re looking at a 3 hour limit.

But the key is the time of day. I looked at flights scheduled on August 12, 2010 as a comparison. Not much should have changed between last year and this year. Between 145p and 3p, there are only 29 flights scheduled to arrive and 15 scheduled to depart. That’s an average of 23.2 arrivals per hour and 12 departures per hour during the time of the storm. Meanwhile, between 8p and 10p, 82 flights are scheduled to arrive and 32 scheduled to depart. Think about that, that’s 41 arrivals per hour or 16 departures. That’s a significant difference.

On top of that, the imbalance of arrivals to departures is huge at night. That’s because a lot of planes come in and stay the night before flying out in the morning. That means that the gates are full at night, so if planes don’t push back to depart on time, then arrivals have nowhere to go. That’s not usually the case during the day. And don’t underestimate the 2 hours of storms this year versus 1.25 hours last year. That’s a huge difference when 3 hours is your cutoff.

There were a couple other events we could look at in June 2009 as well, but I could paint a story for those too. I think the point is clear. Knowing that thunderstorms tend to be the biggest culprit for long ground delays during the summer, June was a luckier weather month in 2010 than it was in 2009.

That being said, even if we had the exact same weather this year, I would bet the performance would still have been better. Simply being more cognizant about the situation would have reduced the number of ground delays, but that’s going to have happened even if this rule didn’t exist.

The bottom line is that the DOT can’t have it both ways. If it wants to just use superficial results to advance its claim, go right ahead. But then don’t tell people who do more in-depth reviews that it’s too early to look at the results. This is a far more complicated issue than either the DOT or the pro-rule people want to admit.

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9 comments on “DOT Claim of 3 Hour Rule Success is Superficial and Contradicts DOT’s Previous Stance

  1. You know, I think I finally figured out what’s really bugging me about the three hour rule: it’s managing from the top down what should be managed from the bottom up. Instead of saying: airports and airlines must maintain appropriate equipment to deplane x number of planes, it’s just handing a smackdown to the airlines to fix it.

    Like in the case of VA’s international diversion that was waiting on inspectors, a bottom up rule would’ve said that the government agencies must have people available to inspect within one hour notice of the airline. That would’ve fixed the problem.

  2. CF Said:>>>
    This is a far more complicated issue than either the DOT or the pro-rule people want to admit.

    Roger that, and it’s not just their “wanting” to admit, but also “being able” to admit. They have no earthly idea of how all the variables associated with thunderstorms can affect operations at busy airports, and especially so for ones on the east coast. DOT/Hanni/passengers tend to focus on ground delays from an individual flight perspective, but none seem to have the capability and understanding to be able to consider the larger, systemic, “big picture” view of things–stuff like airport acceptance rates (AARs) and how weather can (and *does*) play havoc with the ability of traffic (lots of it) to flow in/out of major airports. Other variables like how the thunderstorms behave, are oriented, move, and most importantly, exactly how long they actually may preclude operations at an airport are simply ignored. After all, a thunderstorm is a thunderstorm, right? (Not!)

  3. on your bnet headwinds column you wrote about the skyw offer for xjt. i commented i thought you were wrong about the first offer. the email link to you is not working and i appears you don’t follow up on what you write on the headwinds column.

    again, brett, i said “if you check your facts i think you will find the skywest offer for 3.50 a share was before the 1 for 10 reverse split. the effective price of the first offer was 35 bucks a share. the shareholders were screwed by xjt management’s refusal of the first offer. if i am wrong, i stand corrected, if you are wrong you should correct your error.

    check the dates and report back!

  4. Sorry for not responding, airwolf. BNET has removed our ability to see when comments are left on the blog, so the only way to see them is to manually go through each post. I just don’t have the time to do it, unfortunately. But I’ve gone back and left a comment there addressing your concern now.

  5. Reports will always be ‘worked’ depending on who is giving a press conference.

    Instead of checking on times/hours delayed, they need to start giving a hand out card to each passenger who’s flts were canceled and have them fill it out on how long it took them to finally get to where they were going. Then have them mailed in or have special drop boxes at airports people can drop the cards in. If people are having to now take 3 or 4 days to finally get to their destination, then that use be used as a guildeline to how the program is working. Four hours late to your destination is a lot better then 3 or 4 days of trying to get space because your flight got canceled just so an airline wouldn’t have to pay the fine.

  6. Just my $.02. But first, full disclosure – my personal opinion is that the rule is dumb, and will result in more people being stranded in airport terminals and connecting cities, at their own expense, as airlines move to cancel flights and force people to fend for themselves whenever weather causes flow issues. And I’m just dying to send Kate Hanni a bill for my hotel and meals the first time my flight gets canceled and I get stranded somewhere overnight because the airline doesn’t want to pay the fine, cries “UNCLE!” and returns to the gate.

    That being said, I think BOTH sides have been guilty of misusing statistics to prove their points. I’m not singling you out, Cranky, but I think your post last month, where you tried to show, based on May data how many additional people were inconvenienced by canceled flights, was premature. That doesn’t excuse the DOT for claiming the delay rule is a success after June’s data, either. The bottom line is, it’s going to take MONTHS of careful study and observation to draw any meaningful conclusions, because as you note above, there are many variables at play when it comes to delays and cancellations. To either defend the rule or burn it in effigy is premature at this point.

    1. Absolutely fair, of course, MeanMeosh. My first post was trying to just grab on any kernel of information that could help us understand. But of course, going further down the line, the airlines should get better at managing this (you would hope). But really, it’s June, July, and August that are the best months to look at because that’s when the problem is at its worst – thunderstorms and all. So this will just end up being an ongoing review. After this summer, it’ll be worth taking a look. Then next summer, it’ll be worth a look again.

      1. And don’t forget December. Our agency’s had a deluge of calls for flights cancelled due to snowstorms on that month for the past two years.

        At that rate, it’ll probably take a whole year of data to maybe better assess.

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