Airlines Reveal Tarmac Delay Cancellation Numbers, but DOT Objects

Delays/Cancellations, Government Regulation, US Airways

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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42 comments on “Airlines Reveal Tarmac Delay Cancellation Numbers, but DOT Objects

  1. 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.

  2. 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…

    1. I wish, but sadly no. They made us sign a release so I was hopeful that it had been recorded, but that was apparently just because it was a convention with a bunch of lawyers. When I asked, I was told that nothing had been taped.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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 the one day every few years or so where Snowmageddon happens. In the extreme case, we can assume Eyjafjallajökull…in which case, they’d never even get off the ground!

      Clearly, the airline would be good for the one or two days a year where all hell breaks loose, but resources (planes, facilities, etc.) would be seriously underutilized every other day of the year. In addition, you’d get all the problems that comes with reduced supply (few choices for customers, increased cost per ticket, etc.). Airlines can (and I assume, do) make concessions in their schedules for summer vs. winter weather and such, but really can’t plan to the random daily variations within those general climate patterns. The ultimate problem is that you just can’t predict with any reasonable lead time when things are going to have an epic meltdown.

      1. 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.

        1. 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 hours – also get the full brunt of a cancellation, as their equipment isn’t going to arrive to take them.

          Overall, a lengthy ground delay may suck for the folks stuck aboard, but is far less devastating to everyone involved than an outright cancellation.

          1. 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. Instead only have queues up to 20 minutes long. Do not board passengers until closer to queueing time.

          2. “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 I don’t think this is as easy as you’d like to believe. It’s not just a matter of updating a departure board and notifying the passengers; you’ve got crew timeout issues to consider, and you have to coordinate with the departure and arrival airports. If lots of flights are delayed or cancelled, then there’s a good chance that there are no slots later in the day to accomodate you if you drop your delayed slot now.

            “Another alternative is to not have massive queues of planes on the taxiways. Instead only have queues up to 20 minutes long. Do not board passengers until closer to queueing time.”

            I believe JFK pioneered this sort of system during their runway closure last year. That being said, no system is foolproof; taxi times at a large airports are significant due to the distances involved, and there’s plenty of time for things to happen that can delay a flight after pushback.

          3. What this really comes down to is something else we discussed on the panel. For those few people who want off the airplane no matter what at 3 hours, they get what they want. But what about those people who want to get somewhere no matter what? What if there was a death in the family? If that flight cancels, there might not be another flight for days. (That happened a lot over Christmas in the Northeast.) So why shouldn’t that passenger have a say as well?

            The biggest problem is that long ground delays really only happen when weather is bad. It might be a summer thunderstorm or a winter snow, but it’s not just regular congestion. If it were regular congestion, the best way to handle it would be by imposing slots and reducing the number of flights allowed. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here.

            Could things be made better if airlines didn’t have to get into a physical line? Yup, but you’re going to have to talk to the FAA about that – not the airlines. You are right, ASFalcon13, that this was used at JFK and it worked well. But the feds will need to make it happen on a widespread basis.

            And you can’t just reschedule flights. Finding an available crew is one issue, but also just knowing that the airplanes flow throughout the system is another. There are constraints on that, maintenance, etc that make quick shifts difficult.

  5. 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.

    1. What I thought was interesting was that the 16,000 people on 318 canceled flights meant an average of 50 people. That does make sense because express flights are usually the ones that draw the short end of the stick. But it still seems funny that it would be that low.

      So, Ed, if you had a choice of sitting on an airplane for 3 hours or not getting to your destination for a couple days, what would you choose? And what if more than half the people on the plane would rather sit instead of cancel? It’s a very tough issue.

  6. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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 you, the traveler: personnel and equipment to monitor and enforce terminal capacity, the unused “comfort items” in tha case of twice-a-year extreme weather… by the way what would happen when the terminal reaches capacity? Block passengers whose flights are NOT cancelled from coming in?


  8. 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?

  9. 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 may have been late or cancelled:

    1. We don’t know.
    2. We don’t think our customers care.
    3. Even if we did know, and even if our customers cared, it’s none of their business!

    Oh boy! But to you Cranky, keep on going. I have more trust in you than I do in the gov’t or the airlines.

    1. JayB – I wish we could agree on a data standard here, but the DOT seems uninterested in collecting additional information. I don’t know why, because it would be very helpful to have everyone sit down and agree on a way to measure this publicly.

      US Airways explained that it has a lot of cancellation codes, and this 3 hour delay code was created for flights that otherwise would not have been canceled. Now, you can’t know that for sure, right? I mean, if you turn back at 2 hours, you wouldn’t know if it might end up canceling anyway at 4 hours. But they do have a good idea on at least some of the flights.

  10. 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.”

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. Yes, very true. And that’s why I want to see a measurement standard agreed upon that can be viewed publicly by all. Then we could really know the full impact, or at least as close as possible.

  14. 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. After more than 2 hours the pilot said they couldn’t make the 3-hour rule and taxied back to the gate. Had he not done so, my wife would have been stranded for the night in ATL, and there was no early morning DSM nonstop. Instead, she got to go home and try again. BTW, after unloading pax, the plane left again. But this time, the weather was better in ATL and they seem to have arrived about 4 hours late.

    Seems to me the rule would tend to hurt people who are on flights to their final destination, but often help connecting pax who can get out of a “stranding.”

  15. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. It’s a great question. BW answers some of it. Another issue is that you aren’t considered in line to take off until you’re physically in line. So even if you know that you won’t expect to be in the air for an hour, you have to get in line or you’ll lose your place. Also, the long ground delays are really a big problem during major weather events. You might push off the gate expecting to takeoff but then a thunderstorms shifts and sits over the airport for longer than expected. Or maybe the snow starts falling faster and the plows can’t keep up. It could also be that there’s a sudden wind shift and that means that they have to switch runways. There are a ton of reasons why this can happen.

      1. The common uninformed traveller would assume the obviously very smart (and he thinks decently compensated) people in charge would have considered changing the rule about having to be in physically in line before griping that the three-hour delay rule is capricious, arbitrary and unreasonable. The folks at the deli/butcher counter have a system that eliminates your having to physically wait in line… “take a number”. It is not at all clear why the “you must be physically in line” rule that leads to customer dissatisfaction (and the seemingly unnecessary burning of expensive fuel that is at least to some small degree a root cause of fare increases) cannot be changed. One would think that the goal of minimizing customer inconvenience and annoyance would have led to the “fixing” of the rule if someone was intent on keeping people from being stuck on delayed airplanes.

  16. 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 CONTROL THE WIND ????
    Aircraft must takeoff and land into the wind. No small or medium or large airport can just turn it’s operations around from using the current runway and or runway’s and then automatically change directions to the opposite ends when the wind changes. This simple example can delay YOUR flight that just pushed off the gate by more than one hour .
    WHY YOU SAY ? Because all the departures and arrivals of any and all aircraft are on a controlled arrival and or departure profile that must be followed to the exact routing into and out of YOUR airport’s airspace. In good weather planes are takingoff and ladnig every 2 to 6 min from 7am to 7pm in places like ATL,ORD,IAH,LAX, and others.
    For your safety we do want mid-air’s .
    So now you have pushed back from the gate, and the wind changes and your stuck for up to hour on the ground because air traffic control had rerouted all the airborne aircraft to get them lined up to land and had to change all the departing aircrafts flight plan’s to reflect the new changes and reposition your’s and the other flights to the new takeoff end of the runway.
    Then after your in the new line up and just ten minutes away for your takeoff , the weather changes at your destination (which can make you return to gate to get more fuel ) or it changes at your departure airport
    Can airlines do better job ? YES they can there is always room for improvement.
    Do I do think the new three hour rule has made for more cancellations and will continue to cause them ? YES I Do.
    No airline will flirt with that limit because it can or will cost them up to 21 GRAND per person on that flight if they go over the limit. They will cut there loss and drop the flight before they will pay any fines .

    1. 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 about that meeting without your detailed input.

    2. 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 of completely unanticipated changes in weather conditions at the destination are not the most common reason for three-hour tarmac delays. If someone has statistics showing this is the fundamental problem, maybe we’d all be more understanding about having to wait so long. But I have taken many flights (very few of them significantly delayed and only a couple cancelled, I might add) to a good number of U.S. cities, and virtually every time when I landed the weather was pretty much what the Weather Channel and USA Today told me it was going to be before I even left my house (to get to the airport at least 2 hours before departure, which is another reason they have given us not to want to fly anymore).

      So until someone shows me stats to the contrary, I’m not ready to blindly accept that most delays are attributable to wildly insane changes in weather at the destination airport. However, I would not be surprised to learn that the root cause of a certain delay was such problems impacting some other flights that eventually impacted many other departures. But in these cases, one would expect management to be able to manage the situation better once the domino effect was in motion, and not board planes that weren’t gong anywhere any time to soon.

  17. 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 they wish. Stairs could be lowered and a van could take them back to the terminal since a three hour delay might miss connections and make the trip worthless.

    Airlines also have a responsibility to make people comfortable. Toilets should work, drinks should be available, and at least snacks for the crying kiddies.

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