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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Airlines: Tarmac Rule Drives Cancellations

US Airways has canceled more than 300 flights because of the U.S. Transportation Department’s rule limiting most tarmac delays to three hours, which went into effect last April, the carrier’s director of operations control said Feb. 23.
Denis Barrett, part of a panel discussing the rule at the American Bar Association’s Forum on Air & Space Law in Washington, said those canceled flights affected about 16,000 passengers, with another 12,000 passengers affected by follow-on flights that had to be canceled at other airports that were depending on those aircraft to arrive.
The 318 flights that were canceled were a subset of 927 flights that returned to the gate after two hours on the tarmac to avoid the potential consequences of violating the three-hour rule, Barrett said. When those flights returned to the gate, about 20 passengers opted to get off the planes rather than risk spending more time on the tarmac, he added.
A Delta Air Lines representative at the conference told the panel and other conference attendees that Delta has returned 279 aircraft to the gate after two hours on the tarmac to give passengers the option to deplane, and it ultimately canceled 88 of them. The representative said Delta compiled those figures about a month ago.
Both US Airways and Delta say they also are increasing their pre-departure cancellation because of the rule, but did not quantify the impact.
Under the rule, which took effect last April 29 for domestic flights at large airports, airlines must give passengers the option to get off an aircraft that has been stuck on the ground for more than three hours. The rule provides for exceptions but also allows the DOT to fine airlines as much as $27,500 per passenger per incident.
The airlines’ recitation of the cancellation figures, which they used to quantify the “unintended consequences” of the tarmac delay rule, came amid another spirited and contentious debate between carriers and the DOT about the rule's impact.
DOT officials have consistently maintained that the impact on cancellations has been minimal. That did not change Feb. 23: Panel member Samuel Podberesky, the department’s assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement and proceedings, cited overall cancellation figures for domestic flights in the first six months of the rule that showed little change from the same time period in 2009. The number of aircraft returning to the gate after two hours and then canceled barely budged, up by six flights, he said.
“The data we’ve looked at doesn’t support any finding that cancellation rates are up,” he said.
Podberesky, however, did subsequently add that a longer period of data is needed to determine the full impact of the rule.

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