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Turbulence over tarmac delays

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy summer. And, ironically enough, a new report out today suggests the recently implemented DOT rule created to spare passengers from extended tarmac delays may be to blame.

The study, conducted by industry consultants Darryl Jenkins of The Airline Zone LLC and Joshua Marks of Marks Aviation LLC, concludes that the new rule will create more problems than it solves. Specifically, it states that although the rule will spare 110,000 passengers per year an average of 3.26 hours in (taxi-out) tarmac delays, approximately 400,000 fliers will face even greater disruption due to increased flight cancellations.

“We’re on pace to have 5,000 to 6,000 [more] flights canceled per year because of the rule,” says Marks. “That translates into a 4:1 ratio against [the impact of] tarmac delays.”

One month and counting
As the first full month under the new rule, May was clearly a half-glass-full, half-glass-empty kind of month. According to DOT, there were five tarmac delays of three-plus hours compared to 35 during May 2009. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that cancellations rose from .88 percent of flight operations to 1.24 percent during the same period, a seemingly small increase that actually represents a 40 percent jump. All told, 6,730 flights were canceled in May 2010 compared to 4,810 in 2009.

The increase wasn’t due to bad weather or air traffic control issues, says Marks, but the new rule and the airlines’ reaction to it. “Hundreds of flights were canceled directly because of the rule and indirectly as airlines pulled back flights after as little as 60 minutes on the tarmac out of fear of the fines.”

The situation is exacerbated, say the authors, as airlines cancel “follow-on” flights that would have used the now-idled aircraft. For example, using a May 14 incident at DFW in which American Airlines and American Eagle canceled 20.1 percent of flights to free up gate space (and thus avoid the three-hour limit), they calculated a follow-on cancellation ratio of 1:1. System-wide, that works out to around 5,200 flights per year, or 400,000 passengers who’ll be out of luck.

And it’s not likely to improve any time soon. As the study notes, the greatest number of tarmac delays happen in the summer — 64 percent in June, July and August — with the highest incidence (72 percent) between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. as late-afternoon thunderstorms roll across the country. (Winter storms are much easier to forecast, making pre-flight schedule adjustments easier.)

“That’s the peak of the peak in terms of passenger loads,” says Marks. “With load factors of 85 percent, you may wait a day or even two days to get an available seat.” In fact, he and Jenkins calculated that the average time to rebook in such situations is 18 hours: “That’s a very real consumer cost that needs to be considered.”

From cooperation to cautious optimism
DOT fired back Tuesday, saying the study "offers a misleading and premature assessment of the impact of the new passenger protections.

Not everybody paints such a dire picture. “The rule absolutely does not say you have to go back to the gate or cancel the flight,” says George Hobica of “It just says you have to let anyone off who wants to get off after three hours.” With appropriate systems in place and airport cooperation, he adds, “The airlines can get people on and off planes if they want to. They just have to have the willpower and the facilities.”

Unfortunately, both of those seem to be in short supply heading into the busy summer season. For some, that’s the inevitable outcome of the airlines’ failure to tackle the problem before it became a matter for government regulators; for others, the equally inevitable outcome of trying to reconfigure an immensely complicated system in 120 days.

So, yes, the summer looks to be a bumpy one with more cancellations but fewer extended tarmac delays and plenty of discussion on what’s to come. Hobica, for one, would like to see international flights covered by the rule, while Marks and Jenkins believe cancellations will drop if DOT makes the fines less punitive and more commensurate with actual flight revenues.

At the same time, DOT is seeking comments on all sorts of passenger-protection rules; the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has launched an investigation into the three-hour rule’s “unintended consequences,” and the flying public is holding its collective breath.

Amid the debate, Kevin Mitchell takes what amounts to the middle ground — both the airlines and the government, he says, are at fault — and something of the long view. “The whole first year of this is going to be plagued with spikes in cancellations and displaced passengers,” says the chairman of the Business Travel Coalition. “But a year from now, it’ll be a non-issue because the airlines will have found there are many ways to adjust for it. It’s not in their long-term interest to cancel flights.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.