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Regionals urge DoT to reconsider tarmac rule

2-Sep-2010
US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood
US Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood

With cancellation statistics showing that regional flights are far more likely to be cancelled than mainline flights, the Regional Airline Association, on the last day of the comment period on the proposed consumer rule, urged the Department of Transportation to reconsider its rulemaking popularly known as the tarmac rule. However, given the department’s continually wrong-headed harping on the success of the rule, reconsideration is unlikely.

DoT, each month since the tarmac rule became effective in late April, has heralded the drop in long tarmac delays. However, it has been notably mute on the rising number of cancellations, a large portion of which are regional airline flights. A study of the impact of the delay rule after it became effective found the department woefully underestimated cancellations resulting from the rule. See related story Tarmac delay rules to cost the public welfare USD4 billion “Although the Department dismissed this study because its authors have worked as consultants to carriers on other issues, the department has not countered their findings, which reveal deep conflicts between the stated purpose of the tarmac delay rule and its actual effects,” said RAA.

Echoing most other aviation groups, the RAA said the department and the Federal Aviation Administration should, instead, concentrate on initiatives that will increase the efficiency of the air traffic control system.

“We urge DoT to reconsider its proposed rule,” said RAA Vice President-Legislative Affairs Faye Malarkey Black, “to reduce the possibility of causing unintended confusion or inconvenience to the travelling public, particularly those passengers travelling to or from the 75% of our nation’s airports that rely on regional airlines, exclusively, for scheduled air service.”

The organisation, in commenting on the NPRM supposedly designed to improve passenger protections, said while the RAA supports the aim of the rulemaking and is already implementing many of the provisions in the rule, it said regional carriers should be exempt.

“While regional airlines are responsible for safe operation of their flights and can cancel or divert them for safety reasons, most delays, diversions, and cancellations are determined by the mainline carrier partner or by the FAA, and not by regional airlines,” said the organisation. “Moreover, even before the tarmac delay rule was issued, evidence showed that regional airline flights are the first to be subject to FAA ground stops and cancelled by the mainline carriers because they typically carry fewer passengers than flights operated with larger aircraft. Finally, now that the tarmac delay rule is in place, and mainline carriers face the threat of ‘strong enforcement’ with USD27,500 per person fines, it is even more likely that those flights on smaller aircraft will be the first cancelled, delayed or diverted.”

RAA went on the question whether the rule is supported by the department’s own cost-benefit analysis, which has already come under increasing question given its massive under-estimation of the number cancellations that would actually result. The association wants the department to withdraw certain elements of the proposed rule, specifically the tarmac delay provision until there is a thorough evaluation and a new cost-benefit analysis that meets the requirement of Executive Order 12866 of 1993 precluding agencies from adopting regulations with a justification of costs. 

“The department’s cost-benefit analysis is insufficient ... Of the 11 subject areas examined in the department’s Preliminary Regulatory Analyses, seven areas lack either a cost or benefit estimate, and for 10 of the areas examined, the estimated cost exceeds the estimated benefit,” said RAA. In urging a re-evaluation of the rule, it said any revisions should not only reduce consumer confusion by avoid “conflicts between mainline and regional carriers”.

It said such conflicts would likely arise out of the confusion in the rule as to exactly who is responsible for adherence to contingency plans and fines. “This causes concern to RAA,” it said. “Such redundant obligations and enforcement could lead to dangerous confusion and potential conflict between the mainline carriers that market flights and the regional carriers that operate them. The practicalities warrant placing responsibility for failures to meet contingency plan requirements on marketing carriers.”

It said that the proposed rule does not now “recognise the very different role and relationship that regional carriers, that do not market or sell their own flights, have with consumers, as compared to the relationship and role of the mainline carriers. Importantly, the Department should resist imposing industry-wide rules in reaction to aberrational behaviour or rare incidents caused by weather and other circumstances beyond the control of carriers. The marketplace and media provide a more powerful antidote to those occurrences than does regulation.”

It concluded that many of the provisions of the tarmac delay rule simply do not apply to non-marketing regional carriers since they do not schedule, sell or control flights. The rule, it said, applies in “the context of the relationship between a seller of the air transportation and a buyer, and it would thus not be appropriate to mandate that carriers that do not offer their own reservation services or ticket passengers adopt a [consumer] plan for addressing these elements.”

Instead, RAA wants specific language exempting its members from such provisions as offering the lowest fare, allowing reservations to be held or cancelled without penalty, providing ticket refunds, which the department has already acknowledged since it has ruled there is no applicability of the rules to “non-selling” airlines.

The rule also requires a tarmac delay contingency plan but RAA said such provisions should not be be extended to additional airports with at least 10,000 annual enplanements per year or small or non-hub airports, saying there is no evidence that extending the rule to small hub and non-hub airports is necessary or would benefit consumers, especially since the department’s analysis shows that costs outweigh the benefits.

RAA also objected to using social media to address consumer complaints something that carriers have been struggling with as social media threatens to take over for the customer care departments, where personnel are not only trained but have more expertise in dealing with consumer complaints. 

The association also favoured retaining the cap of denied boarding compensation at 100% an 200% of the ticket costs but said oversales on flights on 19 to 29-seat aircraft should continue to be permitted. It said that since regional flights are generally the first to be subject to ground holds, delays and cancellations, increases in the denied boarding compensation would constitute an unfair burden since they do not sell the seats.

“The Department’s decision two years ago to double the potential compensation for denied boarding while at the same time imposing those DBC amounts on aircraft with 30-60 seats was a double whammy on regional carriers,” it said, noting they are the only carriers that serve many small and mid-size communities. “That decision reversed the CAB’s recognition that exemption of aircraft up to 60 seats was warranted by the ‘disproportionate size of the penalty relative to the typical short-haul fare’ and because ‘the viability of the small-aircraft segment of the industry, which competes most directly with ground transportation, depends partly on its ability to minimise its costs, respond flexibly to consumer demand and maintain high load factors'."


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