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Is the DOT Really Winning the Tarmac Delay Battle?

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) tarmac delays rule, which prohibits airlines from keeping passengers on the runway for more than three hours, has done a great job of reducing those delays. There have been eight tarmac delays longer than three hours since late April, when the rule took effect. There were over 500 during the same period last year. That’s clearly good.

Less clear, however, is the regulation’s effect on cancellations. If you’ve followed the tarmac delay drama at all, you know airlines and other opponents of the rule warned of massive cancellations as a result of the restriction. And even as the DOT issued report after report highlighting the rule’s success at reducing delays, those same reports did little to prove those warnings wrong.

Now the DOT finally has something on which it can hang its hat. In August, tarmac delays were virtually non-existent (there was one) while cancellations held steady year-over-year and dropped considerably from July. Here are the numbers:

  • August 2010 – One three-hour tarmac delay; cancellations: 0.986 percent (5,613 out of 569,217 flights)
  • August 2009 – 70 three-hour tarmac delays; cancellations: 0.988 percent (5,618 out of 568,301 flights)
  • July 2010 – Three three-hour tarmac delays; cancellations: 1.4 percent (8,170 cancellations out of 570,788 flights)

This is what the DOT wants to see: Few or zero tarmac delays, level cancellations. Mission accomplished, right? “These numbers show that the tarmac delay rule is protecting passengers from being trapped indefinitely aboard an airplane – with little or no increase in canceled flights,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a release. “Also, it shows that the hard work the airlines are putting into implementing the rule is paying off. With the summer travel season behind us, it appears that the rule is working as planned.”

Well, not so fast. August was a good month, make no mistake, but it was one month. After an uneven start, it will take more than one month to prove the rule is working as planned.

More importantly, the true test of the DOT’s rule still awaits. While summer is busy and prone to unpredictable weather, nothing compares to the holidays. How will the airlines respond when an ice storm smacks the East Coast or a blizzard buries Chicago? Let’s see how the rule performs through the winter before we declare it a success, or otherwise.

Readers, what do you think? Is the rule working, or do we need more time to evaluate?

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