CORRECTION: US airline tarmac delay rule

We erroneously reported an implementation delay of the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) tarmac delay rule that would force airlines to release passengers after three hours on the tarmac. However, the rule, set to become effective 29-Apr-2010, is not being delayed. The only thing the DOT is considering is requests by various airlines to exempt them from the rule during construction on the Bay runway at New York JFK International Airport. The construction is scheduled to go through Jun-2010.

The industry has been in close debate on the new rule since last month's back-to-back blizzards forced the cancellation of over 38,000 flights. Tarmac rules influenced cancellation decision for US airlines, whose revenue loss now stands at USD176 million.

Just in time for...thunderstorm season

The new rule will now become effective just in time for the summer thunderstorm season. Airlines say that instead of incurring the fines, they will put a hair-trigger on flight cancellations, especially because (as noted by airline consultant Darryl Jenkins), they make only about USD20,000 for a typical narrowbody segment. The Department of Transportation, in suggesting that the real problem was over scheduling, which the airlines have always done, said the airlines have it within their power to avoid delays.

In a statement last week, DoT spokesperson, Bill Mosley noted, "carriers have it within their power to schedule their flights more realistically, to have spare aircraft and crews available to avoid cancellations, to ensure that their crews do not come up against flight-and-duty-time limitations when tarmac delays occur, and to place passengers on other carriers' flights when flights must be cancelled for whatever reason.”

The Business Travel Coalition (BTC) agrees, according to a piece by Executive Director Kevin Mitchell. “To cry foul now rings hollow,” said Mitchell. “The crux of the problem is not weather-related irregular operations. They happen. Rather, it is how airlines respond to them that matters. Airlines’ unpreparedness, and some say unwillingness, to take care of passenger needs during extended tarmac delays has been well documented beginning with the Detroit snowstorm debacle in Jan-1999.”

It is unlikely the new rule will cause the kind of sky-will-fall cancellation scenarios being promulgated by airlines in the news media,” he said. “Proactive, advance cancellations are in fact needed at overscheduled airports, and communications technologies such as text messaging are facilitating improved customer service before and during irregular operations. To the extent material and unacceptable spikes in cancellation levels do occur, it will not have been because of the new tarmac rule, it will instead have been because the underlying problem of over scheduling had not been effectively addressed".

Mitchell agreed with the airlines, however, saying the proposed fine, which tops out at USD27,500 per passenger, per airplane is exorbitant and problematic, since there are no clear standards by which to judge the most egregious violations. He also said the implementation schedule was ill-timed, given the closure of JFK’s Bay runway.

He called for system-wide reengineering, especially at New York, where delays ripple across the entire system. This re-engineering could include reducing schedules, using larger aircraft, more off-peak scheduling and shifting flights to secondary airports, but can’t be done in time for even the new implementation date.

“Given that New York airports are directly or indirectly responsible for 75% of delays across the entire US system, fundamental changes in New York will necessarily impact airlines’ schedules throughout U.S. domestic and international systems,” he said. “Essentially, airlines will have to take a total systems-view as they reconfigure the approach to their business. Because proactively cancelling flights ahead of adverse weather systems is an imperfect and inefficient proxy for true reform, many more passengers will likely have been disrupted than would have been necessary. Add in new complexities from airline unbundling and customer service problems can be greatly exacerbated. A passenger who prepaid for a variety of ancillary services, and who suddenly has to fly on another carrier, will be stuck endeavoring, and probably unsuccessfully so, to secure refunds".

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