Did the federal government just kill tarmac delays?

You could be forgiven for thinking so after reading this morning’s news release from the Transportation Department, which declared that for the first time since it began keeping records on tarmac delays, it recorded no delays of more than three hours in October. That’s down from 11 flights in Oct. 2009.

There’s no word on delays of less than three hours, although it seems our attention is likely to focus on them soon.

I’ll skip the Ray LaHood soundbite. Needless to say, the DOT is pleased with itself.

But did it just kill tarmac delays? I wouldn’t be so sure.

An independent survey by aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claims 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays, because of the government’s new tarmac-delay rules.

“The size of the fine is just too punitive,” Jenkins told me in an earlier interview. “The reasons we don’t like the rule is that in order to prevent these long tarmac delays, you’re causing these cancellations that would not happen otherwise.”

LaHood struck back shortly after the study was released, calling it flawed and promising not to retreat on its tarmac rules in his blog.

“Air travelers can be assured – and so can our critics – that the DOT is not going to back down when it comes to protecting flyers’ rights,” he wrote.

But Jenkins and Marks make a valid point. Last summer was unusually quiet, in terms of weather, which is the leading cause of tarmac delays. If next summer’s weather returns to normal, tarmac delays could come back with a vengeance.

All of this also raises the question of the proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights championed by some single-issue airline advocates. Will that pass with the FAA Reauthorization Bill if there’s a perception that tarmac delays are dead?

In a Republican-controlled Congress, I wouldn’t bet on it.

So tarmac delays will probably live to see another day.