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The Real Reason Your Flight Was Cancelled

A year ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a new rule: Effective immediately, airlines were under notice that if a flight was delayed and spent more than three hours on the tarmac and didn't return to the gate, the airline was subject to a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger.

Has this move been successful? It depends on who you ask.

Tarmac-Delay Rule Basics
In real dollar figures, a fully loaded, delayed 737 that didn't return to the gate in three hours could be hit with a fine of more than $3.4 million.

The new rule and fine schedule came about after a number of states tried to enact special passenger rights legislation, but the laws (including passed unanimously by the legislature of New York State) were thrown out by federal courts. Why? the airlines went to court and argued -- successfully -- that under airline deregulation, states were prohibited from regulating the airlines.

So, the U.S. Department of Transportation went the rule-making route instead.

Tarmac Delays Declined, But Flight Cancellations Rose

The number of tarmac delays has plummeted, but the airlines, of course, argue that the rules haven't worked because they have led to a dramatic rise in flight cancellations -- many of which by airlines not wanting to take the chance of that huge fine. At the first sign of rain, or snow, or any other kind of weather, airlines have been in essence preemptively cancelling a lot of their flights, and stranding thousands of passengers, many of them business travelers who desperately need to get to where they initially desired.

The airlines say beware of the consequences of good intentions and that cancelling many flights well before the three-hour deadline is inconveniencing business travelers even more.

According to an independent study citing DOT statistics, cancellations in bad weather surged 42 percent between May and October last year. And at the same time, between last May and this January, only 16 flights had tarmac delays of three hours or more. (The year before that, however, it was a whopping 604.)

Keeping Your Options Open
My position is that quick cancellations are preferable to the three-hour plus delays on the tarmac. As as frequent traveler, I'd much rather take a fast "no," as in we're not going, rather than an anguished "maybe" that stretches for hours and results in a "no" anyway.

Returning to the terminal gives me options: options to rebook flights, or if that's not possible, to book a hotel room, and to make important phone calls.

The Real Solution for Airlines: Better Schedules

It says something powerful that the number of significant delays dropped from 604 to 16. That's a remarkable achievement. Why did that happen? Not because the airlines self-regulated. Hardly. It happened because the $27,500 fine was a major wake-up call to the airlines. It forced them to have a much more realistic approach to their schedules, even in good weather.

If airlines schedule 40 flights each morning all listed as 8 a.m. departures from one airport (or worse, 50 departures at 5 p.m.), and the airport only uses one runway for departures, it doesn't take a math genius to realize that even in the best of weather there will be delays. Ironically, some airlines are asking the DOT to change the deadline to a four-hour delay rule.

I hope the DOT sticks with three. Giving the airlines another hour won't change the basic problem. The airlines still need to dramatically adjust their published schedules because they are not realistic to begin with.

Would you rather wait on the tarmac for more than three hours, or have your flight canceled and return to the airport?

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Photo credit: Flickr user Kelly Sue
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