Airlines WRONG: Lengthy airport delays fall to zero!

Now 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]

Airline fees never going away, $1.2 billion in first half

In the first six months of 2010, U.S. airlines raked in $1.2 billion – and that’s just from change and cancellation fees. The industry is on track to see $2 billion in revenue just on ticket-related fees this year.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, here’s where the money’s going:

  1. Delta had the most at $347.1 million in the first half of 2010
  2. American Airlines was a distant second at $235.3 million in ticket related change fees
  3. United Airlines pulled in $158.3 million
  4. US Airways generated $128.3 million from ticket fees
  5. Continental Airlines picked up $120 million

JetBlue didn’t hit the top five (finishing sixth), but it did lead the low-cost category in change and cancellation fees, with $55.7 million.

[photo by cliff1066 via Flickr]

One three-hour airline delay this summer … and the industry survived

The latest data from the Department of Transportation suggests that airlines are figuring out how to survive in a world of on-the-ground delays that can last no more than three hours. The summer travel season had only one delay that was affected by the rule. This is a 98.5 percent decline from the summer of 2009.

The airline industry mobilized, when faced with the prospect of the three-hour rule, to counter that there would be a substantial increase in canceled flights, as the threat of hefty fines would cause them to pull the plug. Yet, this hasn’t really happened either. Cancellation rates for the spring and summer were:

  • May: 1.24 percent
  • June: 1.5 percent
  • July: 1.43 percent
  • August: 1 percent

In fairness, May, June and July had cancellation rates higher this year than last, but August held steady, suggesting that it is possible to comply with the three-hour delay rule without sending cancellation rates sky-high.

According to MSNBC:

That’s an acceptable tradeoff, says DOT. “Although the rule has been in effect only a short time, we’ve seen no tangible increase in flight cancellations,” said spokeswoman Olivia Alair, “which means airlines are taking action to prevent delays without canceling flights, as some industry critics claimed they would.”

So, what were the dire consequences forecasted by the airline sector?

Those critics would no doubt include airline consultants Darryl Jenkins and Josh Marks, who published a report in July stating that the new rule would lead to an additional 5,200 cancellations per year (both directly and indirectly), at a cost to the public welfare of $3.5 to $3.9 billion over the next 20 years.

Jenkins and Marks stand by their projections, creating a situation in which the same data is leading to two perspectives. But, one thing is clear: in terms of percentage, flight cancellations have stayed consistently under the 15-year average for four consecutive months.

[photo by nafmo via Flickr]

Ask Gadling: What do I do if my flight gets canceled?

We’ve all been there. Fourteen seconds after getting to the airport in a mindless blur you look up at the departure boards and see that dreaded word next to your flight: CANCELED. Your weekend appointment, your deeply important business meeting, your tickets to the Knicks game – everything is suddenly on the line thanks to the fault of one airline that was supposed to get you to your destination on time. And now you’re stuck at the airport.

Flight cancellations happen all the time and there’s little that can be done about their occurrence. Mechanical, weather and act-of-God delays happen all of the time, but the result of their action doesn’t have to ruin your day – in fact, in a few cases it might improve it.

The first thing to remember: don’t panic. Airlines are contractually required to get you from point A to point B, and most carriers have enough capacity to get you there in a reasonable amount of time – so you don’t have to worry about never making it to your destination. How and when you get there is another question.

After you’ve collected yourself, look at the departures board and see if there are any other identical flights on the same or different airline to your route listed. Something on your airline at a later time is the most ideal case, but make sure to take note of any other airlines operating on that route – it might come in handy later.

View more Ask Gadling: Travel Advice from an Expert or send your question to ask [at] gadling [dot] com.

Next, despite what the agent at your departure gate might suggest, don’t jump into line behind the 200 other people on your flight waiting to get rebooked. Each one of those people has precedence over you on the soonest departing flight, and the faster you can speak to someone the faster you can snatch up an available seat. Thus, to get ahead, do one of the following:

  1. Find a free agent at another gate or find a rebook station. Most major airline hubs have manned stations where rebooking and organization can take place. In fact, most gate agents have access to the booking system. If you find a (free) agent and calmly outline your situation, most of them would be willing to help you rebook.
  2. Call the airline. Even if you don’t have access to a fancy elite line, it’s often easier to speak to a phone agent to rebook your ticket. Look down at your boarding pass for your record locator and/or your ticket number to provide everything you need for the phone agent. As an added bonus, representatives on the phone will probably be less stressed out and thus better equipped to help out in your situation.

There’s also the issue of routing. It always helps to have potential flights or strategies in mind when you walk up to the agent for rebooking. Remember those flights on other carriers? Make sure you suggest those routes if the ticket agent wants to put you on a flight that you don’t want to take. If you had a connection earlier, you can also suggest to be put on a direct flight to your destination. Cutting out the extra flight (and layover) can actually save you time in the long run.

A great way to suggest alternate routing is to jump online and check the available outbound flights. Plugging your departure and arrival airports into a tool such as or even into your airline’s website will usually give you all of the possible routes that can be flown in one day – thus, if you would rather fly through Dallas over Chicago on your way to New York you can politely suggest an alternate route and the ticket agent should have the ability to accommodate your request.

Finally, if your cancellation involves being stuck in a transit city overnight or for a long period, make sure to ask for hotel, food or transportation vouchers to compensate for your lost time. Most airlines are obligated to help out so you should take advantage!

Airline cancellation fees worse than baggage fees

Airlines rely on you to have minor and major personal crises. Everything from changed meeting dates to family emergencies generate around $2 billion in change and cancellation fees a year, according to the Department of Transportation. That’s pretty much twice the amount the airlines pull in from extra bag fees – a measure that’s already been lauded by the Wall Street set for its impact on the airlines’ finances. For American Airlines parent AMR, for example, change and cancellation penalties came to $116 million for the first quarter of the year, while baggage fees amounted to $108 million.

These penalties, lamented almost universally by passengers, upped airline passenger revenue by 3.2 percent in the United States. As usual, business travelers get screwed most (probably because they travel most. They paid the bulk of $527.6 million in first quarter change fees.

Even with fewer people climbing onto planes this year, increases in penalty amounts have led to a net gain in revenue for airlines from this type of fee. A number of the larger airlines upped their change fees from $100 to $150. JetBlue moved it from $40 to $100 – and saw first quarter fees surge 29 percent, from $25 million to $32.2 million, relative to the first quarter of 2008.

These change fees are actually pretty important. With the money they bring in, airlines can offer discounts elsewhere, financed by the extra income. And, they make it more attractive for passengers to buy full-fare tickets, that way they have a bit more flexibility. The more expensive tickets benefit the passenger … and of course, the airline.