DOT fires back at airline consultants that say 3-hour tarmac rule is harming consumers

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

DOT fires back after airline tarmac delay backlash

NEW YORK — The Transportation Department fired back at two airline consultants who say the rule that puts a three-hour limit on tarmac delays is harming travelers.

DOT said the study released Tuesday “offers a misleading and premature assessment of the impact of the new passenger protections.”

The consultants, Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks, say the rule is hurting travelers because it leads the airlines to cancel more flights in an effort to avoid fines. The DOT can fine airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for holding them more than three hours.

The study looks at data for May, the first month the rule was in effect. The DOT said the study is “far too narrow to yield defensible conclusions about future airline trends.” But the consultants say the impact to passengers is clear: more cancellations, more grief and possibly a trickle down financial toll from tarmac violations.

The government thinks airlines can avoid tarmac delays by scheduling better. But the consultants argue that a bulk of long tarmac delays are unavoidable.

Thunderstorms are one of the main causes of flight delays because they are difficult for airlines and airport officials to predict.

There were five flights stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours in May — all five were weather-related. The DOT hasn’t said whether it will fine United and Delta, the airlines that operated those flights.

Tarmac delays have fallen significantly since the government announced the new rule. The five flights stuck for more than three hours in May compares with 35 three-hour delays in May 2009. Tarmac delays also dropped in April compared with a year earlier.

Cancellations went up and the consultants argue that the ripple effect of cancellations are more harmful to consumers than extended delays. Airlines canceled about one-third more of their scheduled domestic flights in May compared with May 2009. Cancellations nearly doubled from April.

The consultants say that while 110,000 passengers a year will be spared long tarmac delays, at least 200,000 passengers will be on a flight canceled to comply with tarmac delay regulations.

They predict that in the long run, the rule will hurt even more passengers. For every tarmac delay that is prevented by the rule, they forecast another four flights will be canceled. In summer months, when airlines are busiest and spare seats are rare, Jenkins and Marks estimate that it may take as long as 18 to 22 hours for passengers to find new flights.

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