Feds Agree That Tarmac Delay Rule Increases Cancellations

Government Regulation

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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23 comments on “Feds Agree That Tarmac Delay Rule Increases Cancellations

  1. Something could happen to change things if enough of the traveling public pays attention to the report and sound off to their elected officials in Washington. Since next year is a big election year, now is the best time to start the ball rolling on some changes since Capitol hill can make changes to make things better for the America people.

    (Stop laughing. It could happen. Um, sure it could.)

    Now where have I seen that last line before?…….LOL

    1. Why rely on politicians ? Shouldn’t the airlines agree to sensible win-win solutions, therefore allowing DOT to soften the rule ?

  2. I don’t agree that the consequences are unintended. The proponents of the regulations have always used the “Have-our-cake-and-eat-it-too” approach when arguing their case. “This will reduce delays, and not affect cancellations.” That’s how they sold it to the public. But I can’t imagine they honestly believed that the rules would not increase likelihood of cancelation. I think they decided that the public couldn’t be trusted to decide between which they hated more, cancellation or being stuck in a small metal tube sans water for 3+ hours at a time.
    Frankly, I think it’s a good rule. Yes, it increases the chances of cancellation, but to me that is preferable to an inhumane delay period on the tarmac. Unfortunately though for those who sold the regulation to the public, they were not honest, and this a definitely disagree with.
    If there are going to be costs to the regulations (there always are), let’s at least be honest about them and have a discussion so we can decide if we think they are worth the cost.

    1. Alright, you use a rhetorical fallacy so will I.

      The consequences of this misguided rule is you hold me hostage to the whims of people who don’t care as much as I do about getting to their destination?

      You have made a (now standard) rhetorical move to give the worst case as the standard. I’ve sat on my plane for several hours in the de-icing line at DEN during a snowstorm. There was plenty of water and the crew was very happy to let us get up and stretch while the plane was stationary. I needed to get to my destination. This rule would have prevented me from getting to my destination and would have cost me money due to lost work time.

      In short, the rule is broken and should be tossed aside.

  3. “Yes, it increases the chances of cancellation, but to me that is preferable to an inhumane delay period on the tarmac.”

    What’s worse – a 3 hour delay on the tarmac or canceling the flight and not being able to get on another one until the following day?

    Given the small number of long delays (really, how many 10+ hour situations have happened in the last 10 years) compared to the number of flights on a daily basis, this rule was really unnecessary and simply a pander by politicians to get votes.

    1. If they changed the rule to something more ‘reasonable’ then it would actually serve its intended purpose: what about still mandating water and the like on board, but extending it to 6 hours? Personally, I wouldn’t mind a 3 hour delay if I got there that day, but delays that are 6+ hours are ridiculous, which is what they were trying to prevent.

      1. Even if it was 4 hours, there wouldn’t be nearly the impact. Between January 2004 and September 2010, there were a total of 6,740 tarmac delays of over 3 hours. Forgetting about how incredibly tiny that number is in the scheme of things, 5,579 of those were between 3 and 4 hours. So if you set it at 4 hours, then it becomes much less of an issue.

  4. Love ya, Brett. Always have and always will, but your I-Told-You-So analysis continues to omit the obvious here:

    MANY of these flight should have been cancelled by the airlines but weren’t in the past for the sake of the airlines operational efficiencies — all at the expense of their human passengers. SOME of these flights should not have been cancelled because they would have departed in the next few minutes.

    A 4-hour delay followed by a 5-hour cross-country flight with no food and water on board, the smell of feces from backed-up toilets, screaming babies and hot temps is enough to trigger migraines, diabetic shocks and worse. I’m not willing to take that chance. I’m not a gambling man. Take me back to the gate.

    The airlines & airports had years to implement a better solution and they chose not to. I support the new rules.

    1. I disagree strongly. You say “MANY” of these flight should have been canceled, but that’s definitely not true at all. Well, I guess it depends upon your definition of “many.” As I alluded to in a previous comment, between January 2004 and September 2010, there were a mere 1,161 flights that were held on the tarmac for over 4 hours. In that same time period, more than 64 million domestic flights alone operated.

      Between May and September 2010 alone, we saw 5,000 more cancellations year over year. Now, we can’t directly tie all of those cancellations to the tarmac delay rule, but the point is that you need very few additional cancellations to eclipse the very miniscule number of long tarmac delays that were out there in the first place.

      There were a handful of flights that probably should have been canceled before, but the number of additional people impacted by potentially unnecessary cancellations is WAY beyond that.

      1. I find the 4 hour cut off quite interesting. Is there any way to see what the block length of the flights that canceled were? Its one thing if you’ve got an hour flight, and you’ve been on the ramp for three hours, its another thing if you’ve got a five hour flight and been on the ramp for three hours. Apples and Oranges.

        1. I am sure that you can comb through the data to see the block times on which flights canceled. BTS.gov should have that info available, but it’s not the easiest site to navigate sometimes.

  5. In Europe, when your flight is cancelled, you have priority to be on the next flight (even if it is oversold), and you have every right to bump other passengers out of their flight : I gives airlines more incentives to provide with extra-capacity to resorb demand quickly, and seems to be a better solution than the one you have in the US : be stuck and wait for an opening !!!

  6. Brett-I get it-you don’t like the rule. However I’ve done a fast look at the report, and has you said about the total numbers of cancellations it’s not significant, the number of cancellations is 1 per cent of total flights in the reporting period since the rule went into effect. Indeed the report said some of the cancellations were probably of benefit to the passengers. Sorry, one flight out of 100 in the scheme of things isn’t that great. Finally, the airlines brought this on themselves, albeit with the help of our unbiased mainstream media. (Yes the last part is saracasm). Nevertheless as a United Premier Exec for more years than I care to count, I would much rather sit in the terminal, or if I can’t get out till the next day, my hotel room, than in a tube with cranky parents, kids, bussiness people, etc

    1. I disagree and would say that one out of 100 is actually a pretty substantial number. Sure, the airlines brought this on themselves by not being more proactive at fixing the problem, but why does that mean there should be legislation that doesn’t work right? Nobody is suggesting repealing the rule but rather changing it so that fewer cancellations occur. Why is that a bad idea?

      And just because you would rather sit in the terminal or a hotel room doesn’t mean everyone shares that feeling. Tell the person going to a funeral or a wedding that they’re going to miss it because the flight was canceled.

      1. Once again, I get it-you don’t like the rule. A. I never said changing the rule is a bad idea. I simply qouted the GAO report saying the rule has been a benefit to the passengers. B. One out of 100-we will not agree on this. I say it’s not significant-you say it is-so be it. C. I never, ever said that anyone should share my preference of sitting in the terminal, or a hotel room. The reference to funerals and weddings was a cheap shot on your part, and for what it’s worth-I have missed a wedding due to the airlines. I’ve also missed meetings, been a day late getting home, have meetings cancelled all because of problems with our wonderful air transportation system. It’s called life, and what comes with it.

  7. Sad that it’s the smaller airports that are seeing the biggest impacts. That may have a bigger impact to fliers. They might might have wait longer to get another flight.

    1. Then again, the small airports are those with the fewest passengers traveling through them, so fewer people get impacted. Also, in the case of weather, many smaller airports simply can’t handle flights in bad conditions.

      1. Rubbish. Small airports have more time on the runways, etc. and usually do a better job at keeping the facility open than the big boys do. Check their records!

  8. I love the fact that they think ALL airlines should report to the DOT. I’ve been wanting that since I somehow had increased flying on Freedom Airlines until they went bellyup. I suspected their ontime performance to be 2%.

  9. I agree with the crappiness of the rule, and I like your analysis, but big statistical no-no here: “is associated with” is specifically not the same as “causes.” Can’t prove causation without an experiment.

    1. So yes, the statistical analysis that the GAO did can’t show causation, but there is a lengthy piece of the report where the GAO interviewed airline operations people and that’s where the part about causation is coming from.

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