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

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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.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on May 16, 2014

Ms. Walker, I clicked on the link to your editorial because I was curious to see if your theory agreed with my own and it did. Just yesterday I responded to a friend who commented on today's environment in which airlines preemptively cancel dozens or even hundreds of flights and I posited that airlines are so leery of the dreaded tarmac delay that they've become unwilling to take unnecessary risks.
I also agree that the majority of passengers would prefer a delay of 3+ hours to a cancellation which often results in their trips being postponed by days in the most extreme cases.

on May 18, 2014

While I agree that passengers want to get to their destinations, it was a lack of coordination and planning that led to the rule in the first place. Ask the passenger in the middle seat if they would rather spend 3 more hours trapped in that seat and my guess is they would prefer a terminal with some elbow room, food and restrooms. The fact is, for some carriers, this basic consideration was an afterthought until Congress put the regulations in place. In this day and age - there is no excuse for locking people on a plane to nowhere for 3+ hours. Carriers have demonstrated they are capable of avoiding this situation. Unfortunately, it took the threat of a nasty penalty to get us to this point.

on May 19, 2014

jdpacker, jameskdean - I agree with your points and thanks for taking the time to comment. There is no question that the airlines brought this on themselves after some very bad cases of passengers being trapped on aircraft for very long periods in poor conditions. That is unacceptable (although, as I've said before, Amtrak has behaved similarly poorly during the recent bad winter and seems to get off scotch free. I guess Congressmen don't travel by train?)
Still, the draconian and inflexible remedy brought in by DOT seems like the sledgehammer to fix a nail and it has the undesired result of causing cancellations where they might not be necessary. That's not in the public interest either.
I think DOT recognizes this and will work with A4A and others to perhaps agree a penalty system that protects passengers but also allows airlines to return to common-sense operations. Let's hope so anyway. K

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