Count me as one of the surprised.
When the DOT announced new tarmac delay guidelines last December, I opined that the rules would hurt the very people they intended to help. I am not ready to eat my hat just yet, but Scott McCartney’s column today calls my hypothesis into question.
I was positive that the guidelines would lead to airlines proactively canceling many flights, for fear of being fined by the DOT. After all, keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours carries a fine of $27,500 per passenger. On a full A320, that’s over $4 million.
So far, that has not happened–too much. American Airlines says that 20% of its cancellations in May and June this year were due to the DOT tarmac rules, though its percentage of flights cancelled was only up 2% from last year.
On the other hand, Southwest, US Airways, Alaska and United have all seen precipitous drops in the number of cancelled flights over the last two months, versus the same period in 2009. Weather in May/June 2009 and 2010 was similar, if not a bit worse in 2010. Donald Dillman, UA’s vice president of operatiions stated:
"A few [of the cancellations] have been specifically because of the rule," he said. "It happens occasionally but not really that much."
And even when carriers are faced with a three-hour tarmac delay, flights are not be cancelled. AirTran, for example, had to return 84 flights back to the gate in May/June to comply with the new rule. Only five of the 84 flights, however, were cancelled.
Delta and Continental saw huge increases in the number of flights cancelled, but neither airline blames the DOT. Delta attributes its 133% increase in flight cancellations primarily to bad weather and traffic congestion while Continental blames volcanic activity over Iceland and in Guatemala.
In total, 836 more flights were cancelled this year in May and June than were cancelled in May and June in 2009. But, 792 of the cancellations can be blamed on the Spirit Airlines’ strike.
image courtesy of Wall Street Journal
Despite this rather surprising news, it is still too early to tell whether these new regulations will hurt or help airline passengers. I’ll reserve final judgement till we get through the winter months.
"I would hardly call it benign," Mr. [Jonathan] Snook [vice president of operations planning and performance for AA] said of the impact of the tarmac rule. "There’s something wrong with the notion that passengers on a plane for two hours and 45 minutes have the flight canceled when they could have departed at three hours and 15 minutes."
This remains my concern. Especially when the snow starts.