Airline fines and delays: The world didn’t end

How many planes were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours in May? You can count ‘em on one hand: five. This is the second lowest result since the feds began monitoring this metric back in October 2008. A year earlier, 34 planes sat on the ground loaded with passengers for more than three hours, according to data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

May 2010 was the first full month in which the airlines faced stiff fines for keeping passengers out on the tarmac too long. Staying out there for more than three hours exposes carriers to fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

Four of the five delays in May went to United Airlines on the same day and to the same destination: May 26, 2010 to Denver. They were diverted to Colorado Springs for weather-related reasons. The other delay belonged to Delta. There have been no fines yet, because the matters are still being investigated.The Air Transportation Association, which represents many of the top airlines in the country, says the positive results for May are the result of airline efforts to improve and good weather – not the threat of fines. The association says that declines in waits of more than three hours have been “in decline for over a year,” according to a USA Today report.

While the association claims these factors had a greater impact than the threat of fines, the steep year-over-year drop, the fact that there were only four in April and the plunge to current levels from 25 in March all suggest that the hefty costs associated with stranding passengers have all played a role.

Airline concerns that the new rule would lead to high rates of cancellation seem unfounded, as only 1.2 percent of flights were canceled in May 2010, a slight up-tick from 0.9 percent in May 2009.

Says Kate Hanni, director of FlyersRights.org, which advocated for the stricter rule: “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”