“The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant”

By | November 18th, 2010

The long-awaited sequel to this summer’s controversial tarmac delay study has just been released. In it, aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claim 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays. It calls on the Transportation Department to clarify its three-hour turnback rule — a rule the DOT insists is a resounding success.

I asked Jenkins about the study and its conclusions this morning. Here’s our interview.

You’ve analyzed flight cancellations based on last summer’s data. What’s the bottom line for passengers?

If it’s summer, and there’s a thunderstorm, and your flight is canceled because of this rule – and last summer, load factors were 90 percent or higher – it will take a full day to rebook you on another flight.

But the government says the three-hour rule is a success. Why is it wrong?

Here’s where we agree with the government. We agree that this rule will stop long tarmac delays. The size of the fine is just too punitive. 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.

The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant. The ant is in fact dead. So is everything within a light year of the ant. There is collateral damage.

You say that after the rule, there have been 384,000 additional passengers stranded. How did you come up with that number?

There is publicly available data that allows us to identify the canceled flight by tail number. We can find out the type of aircraft, which we did, and then we calculated the number of passengers based on average load factors.

Related story:   A no-show for my European tour? That's no good

There was a lot of work that went into this. You would have to be slightly warped to want to do it to this level of details.

You suggest that the worst may be yet to come, in terms of cancellations. Why?

We had the best weather in a decade in the summer of 2010. But what if we have 26 days of thunderstorms in June of 2011, like we had a couple of years ago. That would be a nightmare. Then the numbers of cancellations would be doubled or tripled.

Your initial findings in July, which were based on a month’s data, was heavily criticized by the Transportation Department. How have you addressed the government’s concerns about the first report?

I’ve been doing this 30 years, and this is the first time DOT has done a press release on one of my studies. (Update: DOT did it again in response to this study.)

We used the same methodology and we’ve added a layer — the additional data from this summer. We have a high level of confidence in our study.

The new report seems to support the airline industry’s argument that if a three-hour rule is introduced, it will lead to more cancellations. Some have suggested that you set out to prove that correct, because of your connection to the industry. Say it isn’t so.