Tarmac Delay Rule Will Cause Flight Cancellations

Katherine Mangu-Ward has done a great job explaining how badly the new government rules on tarmac delays are going to turn out for passengers.

Having been stuck once on the runway for more than two hours, I was overjoyed by the pilot’s decision to return to the gate and let those (like me) who wanted to get off the plane to do so. In my case, the two-hour delay meant I’d miss a meeting in Washington (my only reason for this day-trip), and my least-bad option was to get off the plane to someplace where I could take part in the meeting by phone. Nevertheless, I am strongly opposed to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s draconian tarmac delay rule that goes into effect today.

Besides my philosophical objection to the feds imposing a rule on airlines that compete vigorously for business, I’m concerned that this blunt instrument will cause more passenger delays than it will prevent.

No airline will risk paying a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger. At a typical plane-load of 135 people (on a 150-seat plane), that comes to over $3.7 million per flight. At the typical domestic “yield” of 14 cents per available seat mile, that 150-seat plane on a typical (2008 average) trip of 873 miles brings the airline about $18,000—for the entire flight. And that’s gross, not net, revenue. So any flight that comes close to two or two and a half hours on the taxiway is going to turn around and go back to the terminal rather than risk that outrageous fine.

When it does, a long list of problems will ensue. First, there may be no gate for it to return to. Second, it may have to replace some or all of its crew, due to FAA duty-time limits, meaning further delays. If it eventually departs the gate after all that, it goes to the end of the taxi line; it can’t go back to its “original” place in line, because taxiways don’t have passing lanes. And if it finally takes off and reaches its destination, all of its passengers that needed to connect will miss their connections and may be stranded somewhere else.

In many cases it will be simpler for the airline to cancel the flight, rather than reschedule it to run much later. That’s when its passengers’ problems really start. At today’s typical 90% load factors, only 10% of the seats on other flights to the plane’s original destination will be available. So to accommodate all 135 passengers from our original flight in batches of 15 (10% of 150) will take nine planes. But if there are only three flights a day to the destination in question, it will take three days to get everybody to that destination. And this is just from one flight that was cancelled in response to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s rule.

And by the way, if this DOT rule is supposed to be for the passengers’ protection, how much of that $3.7 million fine would go to compensate the passengers? Zero.

The tarmac delay problem that led to this rule has been grossly exaggerated. During the first eight months of 2009, taxi-out delays greater than two hours averaged 0.02% of all flights. That’s not two percent; it’s two/one-hundredths of one percent. In the worst month, June, it was 0.03%. So we’re talking about a miniscule problem—though certainly one that’s horrible for the scores or hundreds of those involved in such an incident.

The good news is that airlines that put passengers through such ordeals suffer big reputational penalties; JetBlue went to huge lengths after its fiasco several years ago. And for the past several years, airports and airlines have been working out contingency plans to accommodate stranded passengers, to make it more feasible for planes to return to the terminal in the event taxi-out delays become lengthy.

There are also policy changes that would help. One would be for more U.S. airports to shift to the kinds of common-use gates that are commonplace in Canada and most of Europe, especially with privatized airports. I’ve sat on taxiways many times after arriving early (or late at night) and waited half an hour because “my” airline had no gate available—yet we could see empty gates sitting there unused.

And since a huge fraction of these delays occur at a handful of the most congested airports during bad weather, market pricing of runway access would allow the most time-sensitive travelers to book trips on “premium” flights that pay extra for take-off priority when weather imposes serious constraints.

In short, the feds should butt out, and let competition, pricing, and airport-airline cooperation continue developing workable solutions.