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Did Tarmac Delay Rule Pass First Winter Test?

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The end of December brought the first real test for the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) tarmac delay rules: a massive storm that crashed into the eastern half of the country at the peak of the Christmas travel period. You remember: Airports shut down, stranding thousands of passengers for days. With an operational nightmare like this, you’d think long tarmac delays would have been rampant.

Well, there were only three in all of December, after two straight months with none.

But that’s not the full story. As you might expect, cancellations spiked severely, with 19,692 total canceled flights for the month, or 3.7 percent of all flights. That’s up from 2.8 percent of all flights last December, and way up from 0.7 percent of flights in November 2010. The increase of cancellations is, of course, a direct result of the weather, and as we’ll see when the data for January comes out, this was only the beginning of a very rough winter for the airlines.

Critics of the tarmac delay rule, however, may claim that some (though certainly not many) of those 19,000-plus flights may have taken off if not for the threat of massive penalties for tarmac delay violations. There’s really no way of proving or disproving this point, but there is data that can give us a clue: the number of canceled flights that had sat on the tarmac for two hours or longer.

According to a DOT statement, “There were 25 canceled flights with tarmac delays of more than two hours in December 2010, down from 27 in December 2009.” That certainly doesn’t suggest a wave of defensive cancellations. In fact, since the rule took effect in May there have been 266 cancellations of flights that sat on the tarmac for two hours or more. During the same period last year? 251. An increase, yes, but less than two per month on average.

It certainly seems like the tarmac delay rule passed its first true winter test. Tarmac delays were kept to a minimum, and though cancellations increased due to the severe weather, there’s no data that suggests the tarmac delay rule played a meaningful role in making the situation as bad as it was.

Readers, do you think the tarmac delay rule is a success? Have you ever been stuck in a tarmac delay?

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