Tarmac delay rules are not “backfiring”

By | January 8th, 2016

This airline industry is erupting with reports of a study that shows tarmac delay rules are backfiring on passengers.

They aren’t.

This study does not look at the entire picture of why flights are canceled. There are multiple factors that result in cancellations, not just tarmac delay rules.

Prior to the tarmac delay rules, the impact on passengers was not part of the cancellation equation, and flight rebooking software had not been extensively deployed. Fact is, most delays are weather-related, and the airlines are actively canceling flights days ahead of major storms, not because they need an extra half hour to get planes off the runway.

With today’s flight rebooking programs, airlines would be canceling flights with or without the tarmac delay rule because it saves them money and makes recovery after a major weather event easier and faster. I don’t have to remind you, with the recent winter weather, cancellations are coming fast and furious.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) ended up imposing a tarmac delay rule because airlines couldn’t or wouldn’t fix the problem. U.S. airlines once treated “irregular operations” as a matter of canceling flights only when they were forced to do it, reports Bloomberg.

“The old mentality was, you fly as long as it’s safe to fly,” says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, an industry journal.

That approach led to a steady diet of airline horror stories, with a 1999 Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit offering one notable example: Passengers were trapped aboard the plane for seven hours after a flight from the Caribbean that took 22 more hours in total. Eight years later, in 2007, JetBlue mortified the nation — and many of its own employees — with an operational meltdown that stranded thousands of people at New York’s JFK International Airport, according to Bloomberg.

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Those episodes had many clamoring for better service pledges from carriers when weather fouled flight operations. Airlines did not police the issue, nor were they inclined to cancel flights en masse, given that weather is so tricky to predict accurately … “The industry kind of did it to itself,” says Robert Mann, an aviation consultant and a former American Airlines executive. “It failed to act, so it got acted on.”

Yes, the tarmac delay rule, which fines airlines heavily if passengers are stranded on the runway for more than three hours, forced airlines to come up with solutions in times of winter weather. But additional flight cancellations cannot be linked directly to the Department of Transportation (DOT) regulation. And the airlines were well on their way to the software solutions that have resulted in this winter’s tens of thousands of cancellations (and counting).

Statistics show no direct correlation between the tarmac delay rule and increased cancellations. Other factors have come into play that have allowed airlines to reschedule travelers and reach passengers while they are traveling or home prior to travels. Almost every passenger now has either an email address or a cell phone registered with their airline or travel agent. These numbers are collected specifically for reaching passengers during or prior to travel in case of emergency.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    If you fly Southwest, at least the change fees aren’t a problem.

  • cscasi

    “Yes, the tarmac delay rule, which fines airlines heavily if passengers are stranded on the runway for more than three hours, forced airlines to come up with solutions in times of winter weather.”
    That is misleading in that the rule applies to being stranded on planes waiting on the “tarmac” not on the runway. I can only imagine if the planes were sitting on runways for three hours or more.

  • Jeff W.

    I think the fees in question are when your flight is delayed, the various fees from hotel, rental car, and other downstream reservations.

    In almost all circumstances, the other airlines will let you rebook and change your flights without a fee if your flight is canceled or significantly delayed.

  • LostInMidwest

    See, I don’t do any of this. If I travel during the winter, I pick suitable transportation device like a car which allows me to re-plan the route as many times as I want and allows me to travel at 100 mph average speed. Or I pick a high speed train which doesn’t stop in winter and travels at 100 mph average or better … What? Let me finish … So, where was I … yes, trains … WHAT!?!


    Sorry, I was wrong in assuming that the most rich of civilized countries actually has a working infrastructure for traveling. Nevermind. Carry on. As you were :)