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Sun Country Sets Maximum Tarmac Wait Time

Sun Country Airlines ran into some tarmac-delay trouble of its own recently, stranding 154 passengers on the tarmac at JFK for about six hours on Saturday afternoon. The airline has responded by imposing a four-hour limit on delays, and airline officials say some flights may return to the gate even before four hours have passed.

In fact, Sun Country is saying all sorts of good stuff. CEO Stan Gadek told Newsday, “Until airlines start imposing some discipline on themselves, these events are going to continue to occur.” The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis quoted him saying, “I think it’s high time that airlines stand up and commit [to limits]. It’s a common-sense thing.”

But while this is all well and good, it’s much easier for an airline to declare commitments and make promises than it is to actually implement a time limit on itself. Why? An individual airline only has control over its own operations. As the recent ExpressJet fiasco shows, even an airline determined to offload its passengers can be prevented from doing so by another carrier. Worse, some airports (such as JFK) are simply too congested to accommodate each airline’s policy. That’s largely why Sun Country’s limit is four hours instead of three: The airline thinks a three-hour limit at JFK is unrealistic, and it probably is.

All of this reduces Sun Country’s effort to little more than a gesture—a genuine gesture, one hopes—that could at best cut down on the airline’s tarmac delays somewhat. But as the Wall Street Journal‘s Scott McCartney points out, previous attempt by airlines to rein in delays have mostly fallen flat: “Several airlines have already adopted three-hour limits, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Continental, for example, has a three-hour limit that did nothing to help the passengers stuck in Rochester. JetBlue Airways adopted its own ‘Customer Bill of Rights’ after its 2007 Valentine’s Day meltdown, and yet on June 12 a flight from JFK to Syracuse, N.Y., waited on the tarmac for five-and-a-half hours before takeoff.” Of course, the airlines know going in that they’re making promises they can’t really deliver, which is why it’s hard not to view any delay time limit as a cynical PR move.

It’s as clear as ever that without some sort of federal legislation or mandate, the individual efforts of airlines, such as they are, will never get off the ground (pun regrettably intended). Too many variables exist for carriers to effectively impose rules on themselves. What the country needs is a coordinated delay-management program imposed across all domestic airports and airlines, with clear procedures and a firm time limit. Absent this sort of policy, airlines will continue issuing apologies and making promises while passengers wait on the runway for someone to finally, actually, do something.

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