ATW Editor's Blog

The real reason US flight cancellations are at a 20-year high


News today from the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics that 4.58% of US carrier flights were cancelled during the first quarter of 2014, the highest rate in 20 years.

Weather was an important factor. North America suffered a particularly long, severe and snow-heavy winter season that spread even into southern states that do not normally see snow and are ill-equipped to deal with it.

But there’s another significant reason for the rise in cancellations and it lies in another piece of data released by BTS: No US domestic flights infringed the US Department of Transportation’s tarmac delay rule in March.

The tarmac delay rule means that domestic airlines can be fined as much as $27,000 per passenger if they exceed a three-hour limit, while international carriers have a four-hour limit.

So guess what? Airlines opt to cancel flights rather than risk those heavy fines. Result: tarmac delays disappear, but cancellations peak.

DOT had best intentions when it brought in the tarmac delay rule; there were some cases of passengers being kept waiting on aircraft in poor conditions for far too long. But the pendulum has swung too far the other way.

IATA general counsel Jeffrey Shane posed a question at a media briefing last year. “If passengers could vote between a four-hour delay and a cancelled flight, what would they do? I suspect they would vote to fly.”

I put the same question to an audience at the Phoenix Skyharbor Aviation Symposium in April when I moderated a panel on airline regulation. The response, no surprise, was resoundingly what Shane predicted.  Given a choice, people would choose a delay over a cancellation. And remember, those DOT fines go into the government’s pocket, not the passenger’s.

It would be good to see this rule revised so that the consumer is still assured proper care during a lengthy on board delay, but airlines are incentivized to get them to their destinations. That, after all, is what passengers really want.

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