The government's threat to levy huge fines against airlines that hold passengers on the ground for hours has worked: Long tarmac delays are down dramatically since the rule went into effect a year ago.
But delays haven't disappeared. There have been 20 of three hours or more in the past year, Yet, no airlines have been fined. As the summer travel season picks up, analysts wonder if the lack of enforcement will let result in a return to long stays on the runway.
The DOT threatened fines as high as $27,500 per passenger against airlines that kept passengers stranded on runways for three hours or more. For a full Boeing 737, that would be a $3.5 million fine. The rule went into effect on April 29th of last year.
Two airlines were fined last year for filing paperwork related to tarmac delays that turned out not to be violations at all. United was fined $12,000; Pinnacle, $10,000.
The government says it's still investigating delays of more than three hours that could be up for fines. DOT spokesman Bill Mosely said Tuesday that the department has begun investigations into 183 reports of violations. Besides data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, DOT says it's also looking into reports from media and passengers.
The government says the rule is a success because three-hour delays have dropped from 693 reported between May 2009 and April 2010, before the rule went into effect.
"It's clear that we've accomplished our goal of virtually eliminating the number of aircraft leaving travelers stranded without access to food, water, or working lavatories for hours on end," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "This is a giant step forward for the rights of air travelers."
Aviation consultant Mark Kiefer says the government's hesitation to fine airlines is mostly because the threat of a big fine seems to be working well — so far.
"Given that the airlines have made such apparent progress, the government doesn't want to alienate" the airlines, he said. "The threat of a fine solves their public policy problem without any negative implications."
The implications could include legal challenges to the rule if airlines are fined, Kiefer said. The rule currently covers U.S. airlines flying out of major airports. It will extend to foreign airlines and smaller airports in August.
Kiefer says the number of long delays might creep up again if rule-breaking isn't enforced this summer when more people are likely to fly. June and July are typically the worst months for tarmac delays due to the combination of higher traffic and bad weather.
There were four planes stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours in April, following no such delays for two straight months. April last year also had 4 three-hour delays. In April of 2009, there were 74.
Weather a major factor
Three of the flights held on the ground for more than three hours in April of this year were operated by Delta on April 27. Another was a United flight from New York to San Francisco. Severe weather contributed to those long delays.
Bad weather was the main culprit in slowing down planes overall during the month. The Transportation Department says the country's 16 largest airlines reported an on-time rate of 75.5 percent, down significantly from a 85.5 percent a year ago and 79.2 percent in March. A flight is considered late if it arrives 15 minutes or more after its scheduled time.
Those with the worst on-time rates in April were ExpressJet and JetBlue; Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines had the best. ExpressJet flies as Continental Express.
Six flights were labeled chronically delayed — more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time — for two consecutive months. The DOT said the most delayed flight in April was Southwest Flight 103 from Chicago Midway to Newark Liberty International. It was late 90 percent of the time.
Airlines also canceled many more flights in April than either the year or month before. They scratched about 2 percent of them, or around 10,000 of their total flights. That compares with a cancellation rate of 0.7 percent in April of 2010 and 1.3 percent in March.