Chicago Sun-Times
With Lori Rackl

The downside to a new airline rule limiting time on the tarmac

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Airlines are going to be hit with huge financial penalties if they keep passengers stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours.

The new rule seems like a big win for weary consumers, but this editorial points out a potential unintended consequence that could be bad for passengers:

By Dale McFeatters
Scripps Howard News Service

A new federal regulation intended to limit how long passengers can be kept aboard a delayed airliner is already having an unintended consequence even though it doesn't take effect until April 29.
The rule says that passengers on a plane delayed on the ground more than three hours have to be given the option of getting off. That, in turn, creates its own problems. If the plane has pulled away from the gate, it loses its place in the line waiting to take off. In some airports it means arranging for a stairway and a shuttle to return the passengers to the terminal safely.
Rather than risk a potentially large fine for a delayed flight, the airlines are threatening to cancel the flight altogether. And the fines are huge, up to $27,500 per passenger, meaning in the worst case more than $4 million for a fully loaded larger airliner.
Even if the passengers are willing to risk sitting on the tarmac longer than three hours, the airline may not. The Wall Street Journal quoted Continental CEO Jeff Smisek telling investors: "Here's what we're going to do: We're going to cancel the flight."
Some think the airlines are exaggerating, insulating themselves from the inevitable complaints when they do have to cancel a flight. As a business model, effectively yanking your product off the shelf seems a little shortsighted. And it's not as if cancellations are an industry secret. Fliers can track them through the U.S. Department of Transportation and Websites like flightstats.com.
The issue of flight cancellation is rather a sensitive one right now because bad weather forced the airlines to cancel 34,588 flights in February, leaving many passengers stranded for days.
The fact is, flight cancellations are relatively rare. FlightStats said that last year United had the highest cancellation rate at 1.6 percent of scheduled departures and Smisek's airline, Continental, had the lowest at 0.5 percent. Long delays, over three hours, are also rare, some 900 flights last year.
The impetus for the rule was a singular event and one that shouldn't be repeated. Passengers aboard a regional airliner, diverted to Rochester, Minn., were kept sitting overnight because the crew had exceeded its allowable flying hours and an employee of another airline refused to open a gate at the closed terminal.
Until we learn to control the weather, delays in air travel are inevitable. But like so many problems they can be mitigated by liberal applications of common sense and good judgment.

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1 Comment

Why do the newspapers keep describing this as the airlines 'threatening' to cancel flights? (I think Scott McCartney in the WSJ first used that verb, in a column that was entirely unprofessional in tone.) The DOT has told the airlines, 'Be off the ground inside three hours -- even if you're being held up by factors outside your control, like air traffic control -- or we'll fine you ten times the total amount you collected in ticket sales for said flight.' What do you expect the airline to do? How can this be an 'unforeseen consequence?' Same for the long waits canceled passengers will endure in terminals, until a seat on a later flight comes open. It doesn't take Nostradamus to predict that, either.

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This page contains a single entry by Lori Rackl published on March 12, 2010 6:34 PM.

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