Shocking: Airlines have no long tarmac delays, world doesn’t end

Airlines and tarmac delaysFor the second month in a row, the world hasn’t ended. The threat of heavy fines has ensured that the airlines haven’t kept passengers trapped in the cabin on the tarmac for more than three hours at a time, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. October and November were good months for passengers, now that airlines are being held accountable. These are the only two months in which the airlines haven’t had tarmac delays since the DOT began keeping score back in October 2008.

So, the lobbyists and industry folks were wrong. They forecasted logistical catastrophe. Once again, this has not happened. And, it happened to coincide with record profits for the U.S. airline industry, which means that doing the right thing for passengers is probably good for business, too.

There have been a mere 12 tarmac delays of more than three hours from May 2010 through November 2010. For the same period the year before, there were 550. So, let’s be realistic: the airlines were more than a little lazy in 2009. When the threat of severe fines cause that drastic an improvement, the implication is that the airlines should have been doing a better job on their own.Of course, those representing the airline industry believed that the threat of fines would lead to a heavy rate of flight cancellation, as airlines would rather give up than risk having to pay large tabs to the government. Of course, this didn’t happen. In November, U.S. carriers posted a cancellation rate of 0.7 percent. Sure, it’s up from 0.5 percent, which is negligible, but it’s also down from 0.97 percent in October. The number of tarmac delays lasting more than two hours ticked slightly higher, from 224 for the May-to-November period in 2009 to 241 for the same seven months this year. There were 11 canceled flights in November 2010, up from none the previous November.

So, that’s a lot of canceled flights relative to the prior November, but how big a deal is it? Eleven canceled flights relative to more than 500 long tarmac delays shed? Those are pretty good numbers, suggesting the government can pass a useful law every now and then.

[photo by Simon_sees via Flickr]

Airlines, airports and passengers: nothing but gains this year [INFOGRAPHICS]

airlines, airports, passengersThere are a whole lot more of us flying this year: 4.3 percent more, to be exact. That’s the increase in domestic air traffic from September 2009 to September 2010, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. In that month, U.S. airlines had 57.3 million passengers, leading to the largest year-over-year gain since September 2007. Meanwhile, international passenger traffic on U.S. flights surged 9.4 percent year over year.

For the first three quarters of 2010, scheduled domestic and international passengers were up 1.5 percent, suggesting that the recovery has gained momentum throughout the year. Domestic passengers gained 1 percent, with international passengers up 5.3 percent. Relative to 2008, though, passenger traffic is off 6.8 percent.

So, who wins? Of course, the airlines have had a relatively fantastic year, especially the worst of them. Delta, considered bottom of the barrel, surged from #3 in September 2009 to #1 in September 2010, with more than 9 million enplaned passengers, up 68.6 percent year over year (but don’t forget that the Northwest merger plays a role in this. Delta‘s also the top dog for the first nine months of the year for the same reason, followed by Southwest, American Airlines and United Airlines.


Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport remains the busiest in the United States by a considerable margin. Close to 32 million passengers passed through in the first nine months of 2010, an increase of 1.1 percent year over year. Atlanta led Chicago O’Hare, which came in second, by more than 9 million passengers so far this year. For the greatest gains, look to Charlotte: it was eighth on the list but posted a growth rate of 6.5 percent YTD.

Las Vegas was the only airport in the top 10 for the first nine months of 2010 to post a year-over-year decline. The number of enplaned passengers dropped by a rather substantial 3.6 percent year over year, hardly surprising given the fact that the Las Vegas tourism business has been slammed by the recession. Also, outbound traffic from Las Vegas is likely constrained by the local economy, which has been battered pretty badly (as real estate prices indicate).


Even though the number of passengers increased for airlines and airports, the number of flights operated slipped 1.2 percent from the first nine months of 2009 to the first nine months of 2010. Likely, the airlines were tightening up their flights, making better use of available seats and cutting expenses.

[photo by Yaisog Bonegnasher via Flickr]

Airlines WRONG: Lengthy airport delays fall to zero!

airlines wrong about airport delaysNow that the stakes are high enough to matter, airlines are finally getting their collective act together. The U.S. Department of Transportation just announced that there were no tarmac delays of loner than three hours in October for the largest airlines in the United States.

You read that right: none. And, the air transportation industry did not fall apart. It did not fail to operate. Flights took off and landed … and passengers didn’t have to spend absurd amounts breathing stale cabin air while hanging out with the hope that Godot would finally show up.

This represents a drop from 11 in October 2009. In case you were wondering if airlines canceled flights rather than risk a fine of $27,500 per passenger for airport delays, note that the cancellation rate actually fell slightly year over year.

So, how much did the rate fall?


The largest airlines canceled 0.97 percent of scheduled domestic flights in October 2010, down from 0.99 the previous year. Even if you call this no change … well, that’s the point. With the stricter rules in place, there was virtually no change in cancellations.

October 2010 was the first month there were no tarmac delays of greater than three hours since the DOT started keeping score in October 2008. And, from May to October, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were only 12 tarmac delays of more than three hours, based on data for 18 airlines. For the same period in 2009, there were 546.

Meanwhile, on-time performance improved rather dramatically from October 2009 to 2010, from 77.3 percent to 83.8 percent. That’s off a bit from 85.1 percent in September 2010, but still an indication that the industry is getting significantly better.

Chronic delays were down as all. The DOT reports:

At the end of October, there was only one flight that was chronically delayed – more than 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time – for three consecutive months. There were no other flights chronically delayed for two consecutive months and no chronically delayed flights for four consecutive months or more.

Just shy of 5 percent of flight delays were caused by aviation system delays, with 5.54 percent caused by aircraft arriving late. The number of delays within the airlines’ control (e.g., because of maintenance or crew problems) increased to 4.44 percent from 3.99 percent in September.

So, where can you see the real implications of all this? Well, let’s take a look at the number of complaints about airline service. It seems the threat of heavy fines is making these companies more responsive to their customers. The 749 complaints the DOT received from passengers represents a 16.5 percent decline year over year.

I know nobody wants to admit that the system works, but I guess it made air travel a bit more tolerable.

[photo by TheeErin via Flickr]

Seven reasons cell phones kill people on road trips

distracted driving, cell phones road tripsEven though Thanksgiving is behind us, there are still plenty of reasons to road trip before the end of the year. Well, there’s one reason, really, and that’s Christmas. But, a lot of people are going to get behind the wheel or whine in the back seat. Of course, we can expect a lot of people to be on their cell phones while they’re driving about, according to the Insurance Information Institute’s blog.

Do the math on this: cell phone + car + stupidity = dead people

It really is that simple, but there are some reasons for this equation. In fact, even though I go over seven of them here, the Insurance Information Institute has pulled together an impressive list of distracted driving statistics and insights, and I just lost interest in making the list any longer than it already is (so I suggest you take a peek over on the institute’s blog) … but check out my stuff first:1. Distracted driving: the number of people killed in distracted driving incidents is up a whopping 22 percent from 2005 to 2009. Fortunately, not as many people seem to be dying from cell phone-impeded driving in the recent past, though.. The Department of Transportation reported a 6 percent decline in distracted driving deaths in 2009, which means people are either doing it less or have gotten better at it.

Of course, traffic crashes declined slightly overall for that period, which means the share of them belonging to distracted drivers actually increased. So, there’s no way to rationalize yourself out of this one: stay off the damned phone while you’re driving.

2. Leading cause: cell phones are the top reason for distracted driving, with a variety of perspectives considered. For the future though, texting appears to be the next big killer.

3. Texted to death: 18 percent of drivers in the United State have done it in the past 30 days, according to a recent study by the Insurance Research Council. Drivers 25 to 39 are most likely to be guilty: 41 percent of them copped to it, compared to only 31 percent of drivers 16 to 24.

4. Banning it does nothing: the Highway Loss Data Institute “found that texting bans may not reduce crashes,” writes the Insurance Information Institute. Collisions actually increased slightly in three of the four states examined (but the change was not statistically significant).

5. Complacency: teens are more ready to blame drunk driving than texting for traffic accident fatalities. According to the Insurance Information Institute: “The survey seems to indicates that despite public awareness campaigns about the dangers of distracted driving many teens still do not understand the risk.”

6. Hypocrisy: even though 62 percent of AAA Foundation for Safety survey respondents feel that cell phone use while driving is “a serious safety threat,” close to 70 percent admitted to talking on their phones. Twenty-four percent read or sent text messages.

7. Teenagers are stupid: while 84 percent said in a Seventeen magazine survey said “they were aware that distracted driving increased the risk of a crash,” writes the Insurance Information Institute, 86 percent engaged in distracted driving behavior related to a cell phone.

[photo by inhisgrace via Flickr]

The death of cheap tickets? Four factors to watch!

Will cheap tickets continue to be around?Are the days of bargain pricing over? There’s a lot of pessimism around this issue. After getting smacked around in 2008 and 2009, this year has been a good one for air carriers, and USA Today reports: “Airfares are on the rise again and unlikely to fall again anytime soon.” Yet, a travel industry recovery comes with advantages, as more people want to fly, and they tend to be willing to stomach higher prices. So, what’s the deal? Are we going to pay more (happily), or will 2011 means continued a continued prowl for cheap tickets, particularly online?

There’s no doubt that the airlines are getting more of our wallets. The U.S. Department of Transportation says that the average domestic ticket surged 13 percent – from $301 to $341 – from the second quarter of 2009 to the second quarter of 2010. That’s the fourth quarter in a row domestic fares rose.

Now, airlines are price-takers, not price-setters. What does this mean? They respond to what consumers are willing to pay … they don’t set the tone for the market (e.g., the way a luxury goods manufacturer would). So, if fares are shooting up year over year, a consumer willingness to pay is certainly implied.

Individual airline fare increases are pretty interesting, with United Airlines up 25 percent on average for is period and discounter Southwest adding 15 percent, on average, to every ticket.

According to USA Today, airfares are climbing for three reasons:1. Tension between capacity and demand: during the recession, airlines cut capacity in an effort to lower operating expenses and keep their margins from getting throttled. Available seat miles plunged more than 12 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 through the end of 2009, according to the Air Transport Association. But, travelers are coming back. Demand is up, and there isn’t as much supply on hand. That pushes prices higher, even as airlines scramble to add capacity. Yet, available seat miles are up only 1.5 percent over the past year.

Why?

Airlines have been burned by market forces before when adding capacity too quickly. USA Today explains:

Having learned a bitter lesson by adding back too much capacity, airlines are exercising greater caution and restraint this time around. Additionally, bankruptcies and consolidations during the past few years helped contain capacity. Brands like Aloha, EOS, MAXjet, Midwest, Northwest, Skybus and ATA Airlines have disappeared as a result of consolidation or financial calamity and AirTran and Continental Airlines will soon follow suit.

2. Oil won’t go down: oil has been on the rise for a decade, moving from below $20 a barrel to above $90 a barrel, some of which came from the 2008 market shock. Someone has to pay for this of course … and it isn’t necessarily you. That’s the problem with being a price-taker: you can’t pass along all your expected or unexpected price increases to consumers. Now that market pressures are being eased, airlines can start to recapture some of these expenses.

3. The business is changing: according to USA Today, “so called ‘low-cost’ airlines look more like network airlines every day” – as a result of carrier merger activity. And, the increase in maturity comes with higher expenses. For example, these airlines are “rapidly expanding into larger hub airports or building their own”: that cost cash. It has to come from somewhere. It can also come with long-term costs that aren’t always easy to forecast:

Hub airports are often plagued with congestion, resulting in increased flight delays which can wreak havoc on aircraft turnaround times and utilization schedules, further raising operating costs. In recent years, Southwest has expanded into some of the most congested airports in the country, like Boston Logan, New York LaGuardia and Washington Reagan National.

4. There’s more to spend: the fact that there are expense pressures on airlines doesn’t mean that you’re going to have to foot the bill. The oil price factor, for example, has been around for a while, and it wasn’t enough to protect carriers from price declines. The fact that you probably have more discretionary income – or at least less perceived employment risk – means that you aren’t going to wince when you see a higher price. You’ll book with less lead time. It’s easier for you to spend.

What will be interesting to see is the extent to which consumers will be more willing to open their wallets. Even though having more cash comes with a bit of comfort in using it, memories may not be as short following this recession as they were in previous economic downturns. The recession kicked off by the global financial crisis in 2008 hurt. A lot. Unemployment was severe – and continues to be. People may not be as willing to pay big fares as they were in the past. Does this leave more market opportunities for online discounts – such as those offered by online travel agencies? That remains to be seen.

What do you think? Leave a comment to let us know! There’s no crystal ball on this one, and I’d love to get your thoughts.

[photo by atomic taco via Flickr]