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Zero Tarmac Delays in October, but Cancellations Rise

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) finally has the ultimate feather in its cap: a zero-tarmac-delay month. Yes, there were zero tarmac delays longer than three hours in the month of October. That’s the good news. The bad news? Cancellations took a sizable leap in the wrong direction.

First, the positive. “October was the first month that there were no tarmac delays lasting longer than three hours since our rule was adopted,” DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “We appreciate the effort that the airlines are putting into making this new rule work effectively for the benefit of their passengers.” The DOT’s new rule has all but eliminated tarmac delays since it took effect in late April, but now the agency can say, for one month at least, that tarmac delays were completely eliminated.

But the difference between four tarmac delays in September and zero in October is mostly symbolic. The difference between 4,654 canceled flights in September and 5,275 in October is a bit more meaningful. That’s 600 more cancellations than September, likely affecting several thousand travelers.

But while a month-over-month spike isn’t what the DOT wants to see, the big-picture numbers paint a more optimistic picture. Here are the monthly cancellation numbers since the rule took effect:

  • May: 6,716 – 1.2 percent of flights
  • June: 8,279 – 1.5 percent
  • July: 8,170 – 1.4 percent
  • August: 5,613 – 1.0 percent
  • September: 4,754 – 0.90 percent
  • October 5,275 – 0.97 percent

Six months in with the new rules, a trend seems to be emerging: Three rough months followed by three better months. This suggests the airlines might be catching on, but weather likely played a role, here, too. Airlines don’t specify if and when weather causes cancellations, but they do for delays. In October, 0.31 percent of flights were delayed by “extreme weather,” while in July, that figure was 0.79 percent. In raw numbers, that’s a difference of almost 3,000 flights. It’s fair to assume weather had a similar effect on cancellations, too.

Which means the next few months will be particularly telling. Can airlines manage the new rule as winter takes hold?

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