Tarmac delays, R.I.P.? Don’t bet on it

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By Christopher Elliott

Did the federal government just kill tarmac delays? You could be forgiven for thinking so after reading this morning’s news release from the Transportation Department. It recorded no delays of more than three hours in October. That’s down from 11 flights in Oct. 2009.

There’s no word on delays of less than three hours, although it seems our attention is likely to focus on them soon.

I’ll skip the Ray LaHood soundbite. Needless to say, the DOT is pleased with itself.

But did it just kill tarmac delays?

I wouldn’t be so sure.

An independent survey by aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claims 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays, because of the government’s new rules. (Related: Tarmac delays ground the fight for passenger rights.)

“The size of the fine is just too punitive,” Jenkins told me in an earlier interview. “The reasons we don’t like the rule is that in order to prevent these long tarmac delays, you’re causing these cancellations that would not happen otherwise.” Here’s what you should do when your flight gets delayed or canceled.

LaHood struck back shortly after the study was released, calling it flawed and promising not to retreat on its tarmac rules in his blog.

The DOT and flyers’ rights

“Air travelers can be assured – and so can our critics – that the DOT is not going to back down when it comes to protecting flyers’ rights,” he wrote.

But Jenkins and Marks make a valid point. Last summer was unusually quiet, in terms of weather, which is the leading cause of tarmac delays. If next summer’s weather returns to normal, tarmac delays could come back with a vengeance. (Related: Tarmac delay hall of shame: holiday edition.)

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All of this also raises the question of the proposed Airline Passenger Bill of Rights championed by some single-issue airline advocates. Will that pass with the FAA Reauthorization Bill if there’s a perception that tarmac delays are dead?

In a Republican-controlled Congress, I wouldn’t bet on it.

So tarmac delays will probably live to see another day.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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