Are tarmac delay rules backfiring?

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On a Valentine’s Day almost nine years ago, an ice storm changed the course of an entire industry. Hundreds of flights were unexpectedly grounded, leaving some planes stranded on the tarmac for as much as 11 hours. Toilets overflowed, food was scarce and tempers frayed.

In the aftermath, under intense pressure from consumer advocates, the government adopted a regulation that punished airlines for keeping passengers on a plane for more than three hours.

But they may have gone too far, new research suggests. The new regulations have “significantly increased” the number of passenger delays, according to a new study by Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How much of a delay? Each minute of time saved waiting on the tarmac translates into roughly three minutes of total passenger delay, according to the research.

“This is due primarily to increases in flight cancellations, resulting in passengers requiring rebooking, and often leading to extensive delays in reaching their final destinations,” says Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

Government data indicates about 1 in 5 flights is delayed. (A flight is considered delayed when it arrived 15 or more minutes than the schedule.) From October 2014 to 2015, the latest period for which statistics are available, 80 percent of flights operated on-time, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. A year before, flights were running 77 percent on-time. A year before that, the national on-time average was 79 percent. The research, based on a hypothetical model, suggests there should have been fewer delays.

The study recommends the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) take the following steps to correct the over-regulation:

  • Changing its existing tarmac delay rules to a more flexible version. It proposes increasing the tarmac time limit to 3.5 hours from the current 3 hours.
  • Applying the tarmac delay rules only to flights with planned departure times before 5 p.m.
  • The researchers also recommends the tarmac time limit be defined in terms of when the aircraft must begin returning to the gate, instead of when passengers are allowed to deplane.

Now what?

The study has drawn a strong reaction from critics and prompted the question: What’s next? Will the research pressure the government to loosen its tarmac delay rules?

The airline industry hopes so. “The tarmac delay rule has actually caused more harm than good for the traveling public,” says Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for A4A, a trade group for some of the major domestic airlines. “The rigid structure of the rule in its current form has resulted in unnecessary delays in getting passengers to their intended destination, as carriers seek to avoid overly punitive fines from Department of Transportation.”

Medina says reforms are needed, including adjusting the rule to provide pilots more flexibility to complete flights. The airline industry, she adds, “remains committed to working with the Department of Transportation to ensure the rule benefits both customers and airline employees alike.”

A DOT representative said the agency hadn’t reviewed the new research yet. But the agency pointed out that a January 2014 study on the impact of the tarmac delay rule on flight cancellations concluded that the rule has virtually eliminated tarmac delays of more than three hours and that there was relatively little impact on flight cancellations.

Advocates oppose changes

The consumer advocates who pushed for the existing tarmac regulations insisted that the research is flawed and that no regulatory changes are necessary. Kendall Creighton, a spokeswoman for FlyersRights.org, says passengers support the existing three-hour rule.

“This action was the consequence of thousands of extended tarmac delays of nine hours or more, with horrifying conditions on-board commercial jets in the US,” she says. “Passengers witnessed children passing out due to heat exposure, overflowing toilets, cramped spaces, no food or water, screaming babies and no hope of ever getting off the plane as no laws were in place to protect them.”

Creighton claims the new study is timed to try to persuade both Congress and the DOT to either extend the tarmac delay rule or reduce the fines imposed for tarmac delays, but that it does nothing to help airline passengers. “Instead, it would allow the airlines more flexibility to overschedule, and prevent passenger migration in the event of a long ground delay,” she says.

Vaze, the Dartmouth researcher, says the paper is a scientific study that simply tried to accurately estimate the positive and negative effects of the tarmac delay rule on the passengers. And he’s just getting started. Next, his team plans to examine the rule’s impact on commercial airlines across different years, as well as on commercial airline schedule decision-making.

Are tarmac delay rules good for passengers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Kairho

    I’m pleased to see that, unlike many regulations, someone is reviewing and making recommendations as to how the regs can be fine tuned.

  • DChamp56

    Chris, you may be using incorrect data. The data you’re looking at (I believe) is ANY delay, when in fact, the new regulation was for tarmac delays over 3 hours. I don’t think the data you looked at shows ONLY the over 3 hour delays, and if it did, I would bet they have come down since the regulation was enacted.
    My thoughts here seem to be backed up by a section you posted saying “A DOT representative said the agency hadn’t reviewed the new research yet. But the agency pointed out that a January 2014 study on the impact of the tarmac delay rule on flight cancellations concluded that the rule has virtually eliminated tarmac delays of more than three hours and that there was relatively little impact on flight cancellations.”
    So, it seems to be working after all.

  • Pat

    To me, three hours is still too long. What the airlines need to have in place, when needed, is to designate a gate (or two) where passengers / cargo can be quickly unloaded and then the plane moved to an area where it can sit waiting for a gate to be available for the departing flight.

    Back in the ’80’s, I was stuck on the tarmac waiting for a gate at O’Hare during a snow storm. We were the first plane on a exit way. We could see the gates and other planes arriving at gates. The captain kept saying sorry that we have to wait but eventually he moved the plane just enough other planes could not get to the gates, so they had to let us have a gate.

  • sirwired

    Quality self-regulation would indeed have been the best solution. But since airlines clearly had no interest in doing so, then inevitably-imperfect and inflexible government regulation was inevitable. Sorry airlines, you had your chance, and you blew it.

    That said: “This action was the consequence of thousands of extended tarmac delays of nine hours or more, with horrifying conditions on-board commercial jets in the US” sounds incorrect. I know that delays over three hours were common, but those nine-hour delays? Those made headlines; I don’t think there were “thousands” of them.

  • Jeff W.

    Seems logical on paper, probably more difficult to achieve in reality.

    One issue is that airlines control the gates at most US airports. So if there are flight irregularities, an airline that is short on gates would have to ask another airline to borrow one of thiers.

    Another is a matter of tracking on-time performance, since that is an important metric for airlines and the DOT. To make the math work, lets say an airline has one gate and two flights are scheduled to use it. If the first plane is late coming , but the second plane coming in is on time, from a pure on-time performance perspective, you let the second plane use it first as it is on-time and then have the first plane wait until the second one is done. Does it make sense? No. But then your flights are 50% on time instead of 0%. It is a simplistic example, I know, but I have to think that is a variable used to ensure better on-time stats. If a plane is already late, does it matter if it 20 min or an hour? To the pax, of course. Connections to be made/missed. But not to the DOT stats. Again, one variable out of many when it comes to these things.

  • Bill___A

    I particularly object to the second and third recommendations. Do we want to be stranded on the tarmac all night because we left after 5 pm? What sort of lunacy is that. And not having any rule about letting people deplane, and instead just saying they must “head to the gate” is absurd. We all know what will happen then. I hope not a lot of money was wasted on this committee. Their conclusions are biased towards the airlines undoubtedly. I think there are other things to address. Why, for example, when I fly to an American airport, there is often a significant delay while the airplane is parked at the gate and there is no one to operate it? There seem to be consistent personnel problems at tie gates, 15 minutes or more is spent waiting for one person to come open the door.

  • Bill___A

    Back in the 80’s, I was kept for a few hours on a Western Airlines plane in Salt Lake City. They kept us on the plane and at the gate while we waited for passengers to arrive from their other flights (late). They could have let us deplane for 3 hours but they didn’t. And I never gave them the opportunity to do it again. Furthermore, I flew Delta exactly once.

  • Passengers are a lot better off when they are delayed in an airport terminal, rather than confined and cooking on a taxiway. So long as cancellations cost the airline money, as for rebooking passengers, processing refunds or interlining on other carriers, the incentive is for more on-time performance.

    I suspect that the pressure to relax the tarmac rule is coming from airlines which would like to go back to lying about their on-time performance by shifting delays from the gate to the tarmac.

  • LonnieC

    “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”
    – Mark Twain

  • Pat

    Doing what I suggested would need to be coordinated by both the airlines and airports. There would need to be planning and thought to get it to work and work right. But there are a lot of bright people that could develop a process to get the passengers off the plane in a timely manner so only the plane, pilot, and co-pilot are the one’s waiting on the tarmac for the departure gate to open up.

  • David___1

    Is the data normalized to address weather differences from year to year? Of course 2014-2015 was worse than 2013-2014. We in the northeast saw record snowfalls (I’m near Boston), storm after storm caused massive flight disruptions across the entire country. The year before had relatively little snow in the northeast. This winter there has been almost none. So if we just compare delays and cancellations without accounting for weather then the entire study needs to be questioned. Closing Boston’s Logan airport will cancel hundreds, if not thousands of flights. To then say tarmac rules are the cause is just disingenuous.

  • SierraRose 49

    The tarmac
    rules are probably good – when they are enforced. I now doubt they are
    unless passengers file a complaint with the appropriate authorities. Case
    in point: Delta Flight 82, ATL-CDG, 08/08/2015. About about an hour
    after takeoff, we heard a shrill whining noise from the back of the 767
    aircraft. Another hour passed and the Capt. announced we were making an
    unscheduled landing at JFK to try to fix “sensors”. We landed
    and pulled into an area far away from any terminals. We stayed in this
    area for over 4 hours WITHOUT food or water. Fortunately, the AC and
    bathrooms remained in working order throughout our stay on the ground.
    Repeated announcements were made by various Delta personnel: “We are
    aware that many of you have connecting flights in Paris and our reservation
    agents are working to re-book you on new flights,” “We are working on
    bringing you food while you wait,” “Our maintenance personnel are
    trying to find the source of the problem and they are working with maintenance
    in Atlanta,” “We should be airborne shortly.” After four
    hours, we had to wait for fuel trucks to re-fuel our jet, followed by getting
    clearance to takeoff. We finally got clearance and the Capt. instructed
    the FAs to take their seats. 20 minutes later, the Capt. announced we
    can’t go yet as we need a push-back crew and JFK is a busy airport.
    Finally, after being on the ground for 4 hours, 10 minutes we took off.
    We finally got our food – very cold sandwiches. (First class had been fed
    hours before us). The ovens no longer worked. The entertainment
    system no longer worked. The heating system worked intermittently.
    When we finally arrived in Paris, we again landed far from any terminals.
    When we went to Air France to get info about our connecting flight, we
    discovered Delta had not contacted them about our flight being late the more
    than 50 passengers who missed their connecting flights. Delta gave us
    10,000 mileage points for the delay. We learned from this experience:
    Delta personnel don’t always tell the truth and tarmac rules mean nothing – at
    least on this trip they didn’t.

  • KanExplore

    I think the intended wording was thousands of people affected by delays, not thousands of delays. That sounds impossible.

  • KanExplore

    Unintended consequences, and predictable. The rule needs to be tweaked. Having some rule in place is a good idea, but I don’t think the exact amount of time was an arbitrary decision. Use the data and change the rule to make it work better. I always thought that the bulk of the fine for an excessive delay should go to the affected customers, not the government.

  • MarkKelling

    Who funded those studies showing “significant” increases in passenger delays caused by the rule? Was it the airlines or groups representing the airlines?

    Most everything I have read on the impact of the rule has been positive from the viewpoint of the passengers. Overall on-time performance has actually increased since the rule was enacted. So I believe it is the airlines who have been actually fined for tarmac delays that are the ones pushing this study as the basis for changes.

  • Jeff W.

    Although four hours is bad, is it possible the plane was parked away from the terminal for safety reasons?

    Depending on the nature of the problem and/or fix, maybe the situation calls for the plane to be as far away from as many people as possible. Yes, you and the mechanics, were on or near the plane. But that is less than the number of people in the terminal. Or maybe special equipment was needed to fix the plane, and that could not be brought to the terminal.

  • PolishKnightUSA

    Here’s what I think happened and how we got to here.

    In the old days, if a flight was overbooked, delayed, or cancelled, the airline would put the passenger onto another flight with another airline. The airlines were used to this and managed the cost pretty effectively by having spare capacity (some empty seats on the plane) and working with each other.

    In recent years, they got more effective at getting every last seat filled on a plane undermining their ability to take overages from other airlines. As this became the standard, they were reluctant or unwilling to book on other airlines. The best way to save money, without paying the airport for gate time, was to ‘store” the passengers on the tarmac. They didn’t have to pay another airline to transport the passengers, rebook them and this became standard practice.

    Now they feel stuck between a rock and a hard place (kind of, they have tons of money but don’t want to spend it. Who does?) Since this is standard practice, the first “chicken” who turns will get caught with the expenses of returning passengers to the gate (or rebooking) or sending them to another airline which doesn’t have an agreement with them. They don’t want to pay for more excess, spare capacity to handle overages even when these are easy to predict (such as holidays, weekends, etc.)

  • LostInMidwest

    This one couldn’t be easier … if the airlines are complaining about it, then it is good for passengers. No doubt about it and no further study necessary.

    I cannot think of another Government-sanctioned (legal) business that disdains its customers more and treats them worse than airlines. I am actually appalled with how much Government allows them to get away with.

    That said, tarmac delays rule needs changing. Time allowed needs to go down to 2 hours and for every infraction, an additional $100 per hour per PAX is exacted on the airline to be added to the fine Government collects.

  • SierraRose 49

    Yes, I’m sure we were parked that far away from any terminals (both at JFK and CDG) for safety reasons. Sensors not working; overheating ovens; lots of fuel. My issue is that it was never explained to us why. I suppose they didn’t want to alarm us any more than necessary. Still, Delta’s less than forthright attitude about the entire incident is now “Standard Operating Procedure” with airlines. “We have your $4,000 and we don’t care.”

  • Dutchess

    Samuel Clemons also said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics!”

  • MarkKelling

    Since many of the tarmac strandings involve planes that landed at alternate airports late night and could not get fueled or get a gate where the passengers could be unloaded, this would gut the entire rule if after 5 pm was suddenly OK to be delayed.

  • 42NYC

    I’ve dealt with this once on a flight JFK->SFO on a busy Thursday night. We pushed back and started taxiing, something like #17 for takeoff. A major thunderstorm rolls in and a ground stop is issued. We wait out the storm for an hour or so and planes start taking off, another storm and another ground stop. Finally weather clears and we’re getting towards takeoff and the captain comes on “we’re #6 but at this rate we’ll have been on the ground for 3h 5minutes before taking off so we’re going back to the gate.”

    We go back to the gate, passenegrs are given the option to get off the plane (1 does). We refuel. we push back, we wait in line, we take off. So instead of a 3h 5min delay in takeoff we wind up with a 5 hour delay. In this situation the rule was rediculous.

  • CC Gorman

    The Dartmouth and MIT professors who authored the study state that the FAA provided part of the funding(along with funding from the schools). The Flyers Rights people claim that this study is a “hoax” perpetuated by corrupt scientists funded by the airlines. Somebody is lying.

  • Noah Kimmel

    except the rule pushes more cancellations and added delay by transiting back to the gate area when getting close to the 3 hour limit. As for airlines lying about on time performance, the DOT tracks based on A15 – arrival within 15 minutes of filed schedule. Where the delay occurs has no bearing on the stat.

  • Noah Kimmel

    I think the issue is that any delay becomes “significant” from a time perspective. Instead of 3.5 hours, it could be 3 days by the time everyone is accommodated on a new flight. So the average may be pushed out. Satisfaction is tricky to identify – people dont always associate the tradeoff of a cancellation vs. a delay.

  • Noah Kimmel

    then the price of tickets will go up to get more spare aircraft and padded schedule times. More cancellations will occur as flights cannot be reasonably dispatched with the near-certainty of departure time needed to avoid a fine.

    No one likes being delayed. Airlines hate it too! But don’t think that banning the symptom (long delays) solves the core challenges – weather is unpredictable and people choose cheap flights over on time flights (see Spirits big growth and poor operation)

  • LostInMidwest

    “then the price of tickets will go up to get more spare aircraft and padded schedule times.”

    Sign me up! Where do I sign?

    I am a bit sick and tired of people just accepting to be treated like animals to save $100 or whatever thus forcing animal treatment on myself. You do realize that buying a First Class ticket is not going to save you from sitting 7 hours on tarmac under old rules, right? So, no, I couldn’t spend more money before the rule and be shielded from undesired situation. The problem is NOT in a delay, the problem is being forced into extremely close and uncomfortable quarters for inhuman length of time while the option of sitting comfortably in a wide open terminal is right there.

    The post from 42NYC is blaming the rule, but that is exactly the situation that rule was trying to prevent … if you know that trouble MIGHT be coming, don’t roll the planes off the gate. Let people go to eat, drink and be merry in the terminal and load the plane up when you are sure you will be able to leave.

    Not a rocket science, really.

  • Bill___A

    I agree. I don’t really know what this committee is thinking of, unless they are a bunch of airline guys in disguise. Certainly not looking at it from an “I don’t want to be stuck on the tarmac” point of view.

  • fairmont1955

    I am too distrustful of the airline industry to believe that their reasoning actually results in positive for fliers. Their actions and fighting back is almost always pushed by profits and their own best interests.

  • Rebecca

    “I cannot think of another Government-sanctioned (legal) business that disdains its customers more and treats them worse than airlines. I am actually appalled with how much Government allows them to get away with.”

    I can. The cable companies. While I totally agree airlines are ridiculous, I’m willing to say Comcast is as bad or even worse.

  • Noah Kimmel

    “don’t roll the planes off the gate” might not always be a great idea as other planes sit waiting for a gate with people on them. It simply shifts the burden to other passengers in some cases. In others, it is not easy to predict what weather or congestion will look like. Surely the pilots aren’t happy sitting their either – some things are just hard problems and good intentions dont always work out.

    you say it isn’t rocket science and you are right. Its operations research + meteorology + psychology + statistics + economics all rolled into one. Not as easy as your platitudes suggest

  • LostInMidwest

    “Its operations research + meteorology + psychology + statistics + economics all rolled into one”

    People in civilized world call them “Redundancies”. Contrary to popular belief here, they are very much necessary for healthy operation – if it weren’t for hugely inefficient redundancies our DNA learned how to do for millions of years, and if we would run “lean, mean and efficient” as our airlines execs would want … guess what … each one of us would die before seeing first birthday candle.

    So, no, it is not a rocket science. Nor really any of yours listed. It is simple greed and/or stupidity as far as I am concerned.

  • Blamona

    The fines should go directly to persons affected, the ones stuck on tarmac, NOT the government! Overall as for delays, I’d rather be safe than sorry, even if uncomfortable.