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 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]

Smelly radar facility causes delays at New York City airports

The New York City-area airport radar facility stinks. No, it really does (at least, it did last night). Stop thinking about delays on the tarmac and circling each of the three airports near or in the city. Instead, focus on your nose. The radar facility was evacuated briefly when the smell of gas was reported. Unsurprisingly, this caused flights to be delayed. According to the FAA, the evacuation occurred at 6:45 PM last night. To keep things moving in the skies, 25 air traffic controllers stayed at their posts.

The staff was able to get back into the facility an hour later, and the cause of the smell as never determined.

[photo by Joi 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]

Airline law ends long Tarmac delays, fine threat improves performance

The world didn’t end. No logistical disasters emerged. In fact, everything got a hell of a lot better.

Several months ago, the prospect of a maximum three-hour tarmac delay had the airline industry proclaiming the arrival of the four horsemen. They claimed that it would severely disrupt the industry to have to give passengers the option of getting off the plane would lead to chaos. People would be furious by a lone passenger wanting to bring the plane back to the gate, and crews would be forced to operate within the constraints of customer demands (you know … like other businesses).

Well, the airline industry doesn’t appear to be any worse off than it was. In fact, it looks like the new three-hour rule is having a positive effect. Three-hour tarmac delays have effectively disappeared, and on-time arrivals have improved overall. Everything seems to be running better than it was before the airlines faced fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

How big a different did it make?Well, only four planes sat on the tarmac for more than three hours in April. In March, 25 hit that mark, and April 2009 had an astounding 81 planes on the tarmac for that long.

So, you’re probably wondering if the airlines stacked the deck, canceling flights to protect their stats and mitigate the risk of having to yank planes back to the gate or shell out big bucks fines. Year over year, the DOT reports that cancelations fell approximately 50 percent, with only 3,637 of 529,330 flights getting chopped.

Overall, on-time performance for the 18 airlines that report to the U.S. Department of Transportation climbed to 85.3 percent in April – up from 79.1 percent in April 2009 (and better than March’s 80 percent. Most of the late arrivals were caused by aviation system delays (e.g., bad weather or heavy traffic).

Efficient use of New York airspace and generally calm weather contributed to the improvement. LaGuardia‘s on-time rate surged to 87.4 percent from 67.4 percent. JFK showed a similar improvement – from 67.3 percent to 83.5 percent.

U.S. Airways led the pack in on-time performance among major airlines and followed Hawaiian and Alaska Airlines in the total market. American Airlines was the bottom of the barrel for the large carriers, with its sister carrier, American Eagle, sucking most among all airlines.

Let’s do the math on this. Holding airlines accountable and offering up the threat of hefty fines for mistreating passengers didn’t jeopardize their ability to operate. If anything, it led to improved results. For once, it seems, the government got it right. If that sounds weird, think of an airline that takes off and lands on time. Weird, right?