By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/12/2010 3:33:06 PM ET 2010-10-12T19:33:06

Fewer long tarmac delays but more canceled flights. Based on data released by the

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Department of Transportation on Tuesday, that was the summer travel season in a nutshell.

Less easy to crack is the relationship between the two and what it means for passengers as winter approaches.

“It’s going to be a year before anybody really knows what the level of cancellations attributable to the three-hour rule is,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, “but it’s fair to say that the sky hasn’t fallen.”

Just 1 tarmac delay
The new data show just a single tarmac delay of three hours or more for August , compared to 66 in August 2009. That delay — a United flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Dulles on Aug. 5 — extends a single-digit trend that began in April, just before DOT implemented its three-hour tarmac-delay rule for domestic flights on U.S. carriers.

At the same time, cancellations in August held steady at 1.0 percent over the year before.  That was also a marked improvement over May (1.24 percent), June (1.5 percent) and July (1.43 percent), although all three monthly percentages were higher this year vs. 2009.

That’s an acceptable tradeoff, says DOT. “Although the rule has been in effect only a short time, we’ve seen no tangible increase in flight cancellations,” said spokeswoman Olivia Alair, “which means airlines are taking action to prevent delays without canceling flights, as some industry critics claimed they would.”

Those critics would no doubt include airline consultants Darryl Jenkins and Josh Marks, who published a report in July stating that the new rule would lead to an additional 5,200 cancellations per year (both directly and indirectly), at a cost to the public welfare of $3.5 to $3.9 billion over the next 20 years.

And Marks and Jenkins are sticking to their computer-modeling guns: “Cancellations on a system-wide basis are not a good indicator of what’s happening to cancellations due to tarmac delays,” said Marks last week. “There’s been a significant statistical uptick in cancellations for aircraft that have been out on the field for two hours, two hours and 15 minutes, get called back to the gate and then get canceled.”

So which is it, “no tangible increase” or “a significant uptick?” Not surprisingly, perhaps, it depends on how you parse the data. In July, for example, there were 557 planes that sat on the ground for two to three hours (compared to 795 in July 2009). Of those, 121 returned to the gate but subsequently completed their flights while another 75 were ultimately canceled.

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More to the point, both numbers represent an increase over July 2009. By that measure, you can argue that tarmac-delay-related cancellations increased even as airlines did a better job of getting passengers to their destinations.

Of course, one month does not a trend line make, and even year-over-year comparisons have their limitations. (This summer, for example, was remarkably benign on the weather front.) But for those taking a longer view, it’s worth noting that, on a percentage basis, overall flight cancellations have been consistently below the 15-year average for four months running.

'The threat of fines'
Meanwhile, the impact of the tarmac-delay rule will continue to be debated, even as delays exceeding three hours have all but disappeared from the system. On the one hand, and with a few exceptions for winter storms, the number of extended tarmac delays has been dropping since late 2009. “That was well before the DOT tarmac delay rule took effect,” said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

On the other, suggests Joe Brancatelli, founder of the business-travel website JoeSentMe.com, they’ve become virtually non-existent since the rule was implemented. “The moment the airlines were told they couldn’t do it — except at great financial cost to themselves — the problem went away. The sky didn’t fall; they adjusted their schedules, and everything worked out.”

Which is a good thing regardless of where you stand on the tarmac delay/cancellation issue. The number of flights involved may be statistically insignificant, but the impact on how the airlines handle them is anything but. “You can imagine the internal memo that goes out to every station manager, saying, hey, don’t cost us a couple million dollars in fines,” said Dave Pelter, a former airline executive who now operates InsideTrip.com, a flight-rating website.

In the end, says Pelter, it’s like a game of tennis, where games are lost through a combination of forced and unforced errors. “The rule puts the onus on the airlines to perform the best they possibly can. The threat of fines has every airline looking at their policies and procedures to make sure there are no unforced errors on their side.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. 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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Video: Airline passenger complaints on the rise

  1. Closed captioning of: Airline passenger complaints on the rise

    >>> the federal government says complaints against the airlines are way up. 32% over last year. while they've now made it easier to complain on the internet, "the wall street journal " says the list of complaints includes the fact that airlines are too often seen as tormenting customers, offering little assistance, little or bad information, and leaving them stranded in some cases for days. in a lot of cases, flyers just want the right to get off the plane, especially if it's going to sit there

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