By Travel writer contributor
updated 3/16/2010 9:17:46 AM ET 2010-03-16T13:17:46

Well, chalk one up for plain speaking, at least.

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Last week, Jeff Smisek, CEO of Continental Airlines, spoke at an investors’ conference in New York and said of pending regulations from the Department of Transportation (DOT) on extended tarmac delays, “...having a rule that requires us to cancel flights at three hours or suffer a fine of $27,500 per passenger is inane. And so what we do in the face of a fine like that is we’re going to cancel a lot of flights.”

In other words, neener-neener-neener — a sentiment that, coupled with other recent developments, suggests that actually trying to fix the problem isn’t on the agenda.

Angry passengers and industry allies
If there’s a hint of spite in Smisek’s statement, it’s because it stands in marked contrast to other industry leaders who have have been saying that proactive cancellations are undertaken with good intentions — e.g., to avoid bigger problems when bad weather threatens — as noted in this space last week.

In fact, Smisek’s comment not only weakens that argument, but also discounts the flying public’s increasing frustration with the industry’s apparent unwillingness to address the problem. In a recent poll, 86 percent of respondents supported the three-hour rule, with many saying that even that was too long a timeframe.

(For the record, those opposed mostly fell into two camps. Some argued that the rule is overkill for an exceedingly rare problem — swatting flies with a chainsaw as one respondent put it — while others didn’t mind the rule so much as the fact that the government, not the passengers affected, would get the money.)

Numbers aside, though, it’s worth noting that those in favor of the rule are not, as they’re often characterized, infrequent fliers ignorant of airport operations and what the industry refers to as the rule’s “unintended consequences.” (Based on Smisek’s comment, there will be nothing unintentional about them.)

Instead, even frequent fliers and major industry players have come to the conclusion that something has to be done. In the last year, leading travel-industry groups, including the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), Business Travel Coalition (BTC) and National Business Travel Association (NBTA), have gone from opposing federal rules on extended delays to supporting them.

“We were hoping the airlines would make good on their commitment to improving in this area,” says Colin Tooze, ASTA vice president of government affairs, “but they’ve demonstrated that they’re just not willing to take the steps necessary to curb these delays.”

Posturing, penalties and proactive cancellations
Even now, say observers, the airlines are using the threat of mass cancellations to express their displeasure with DOT. “It’s all posturing,” says Kevin Mitchell, BTC chairman. “The airlines are proactively rolling out this PR campaign in order to blame the rule for everything that might go bad this summer.”

Like excessive delays at JFK, where a four-month closure of a major runway has already prompted JetBlue and Delta to request an exemption from delay-induced penalties. “Their theory is, ‘We can’t have this three-hour rule because the airport might get gridlocked,’” says Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the business-travel Web site “That’s insane — that’s exactly what the rule is supposed to prevent!”

By the same token, he says, threatening to cancel large numbers of flights is just as crazy: “They make it sound like, ‘We’ll show you,’ but they can’t do that because that costs them money, too.” Based on their own estimates, the major carriers lost more than $100 million by proactively canceling thousands of flights during last month’s epic storms. “How does canceling flights willy-nilly work for them?”

Instead, he says, “The airlines will adjust because they have to adjust. Maybe they’ll widen their block times [i.e., space flights out more]. Maybe they’ll fly bigger planes less frequently. You make the three-hour rule work by releasing the pressure on the system.”

Plenty of blame to go around
In the meantime, the most probable forecast is for more turbulence ahead. Mitchell, for one, faults the airlines for letting things get to this point, but also lays blame at DOT’s door for giving the airlines just four months to re-engineer incredibly complex systems that have to deal with unpredictable weather, multiple agencies and international considerations. “One hundred and twenty days to meet with TSA and get consensus with FAA?” he asks. “It’s a pipedream.” Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

Even so, he supports the three-hour rule and, in a statement released last week, pointed out the risks of both further industry stonewalling and governmental over-zealousness:

“Airlines need to abandon their blame-game, public relations strategy. DOT needs to use the consumer goodwill and prestige they have acquired through Secretary LaHood’s leadership on this and other passenger-protection issues and guarantee the rule’s ultimate success by extending the planning and implementation timeframe for the new three-hour rule ... The alternative is chaos and further erosion of business travel and tourism.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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