“The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant”

The long-awaited sequel to this summer’s controversial tarmac delay study has just been released. In it, aviation analysts Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks claim 384,000 more passengers were stranded by cancellations last summer, and an additional 49,600 air travelers experienced gate returns and delays. It calls on the Transportation Department to clarify its three-hour turnback rule — a rule the DOT insists is a resounding success.

I asked Jenkins about the study and its conclusions this morning. Here’s our interview.

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You’ve analyzed flight cancellations based on last summer’s data. What’s the bottom line for passengers?

If it’s summer, and there’s a thunderstorm, and your flight is canceled because of this rule – and last summer, load factors were 90 percent or higher – it will take a full day to rebook you on another flight.

But the government says the three-hour rule is a success. Why is it wrong?

Here’s where we agree with the government. We agree that this rule will stop long tarmac delays. The size of the fine is just too punitive. 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.

The Department of Transportation has used a bazooka to kill an ant. The ant is in fact dead. So is everything within a light year of the ant. There is collateral damage.

You say that after the rule, there have been 384,000 additional passengers stranded. How did you come up with that number?

There is publicly available data that allows us to identify the canceled flight by tail number. We can find out the type of aircraft, which we did, and then we calculated the number of passengers based on average load factors.

There was a lot of work that went into this. You would have to be slightly warped to want to do it to this level of details.

You suggest that the worst may be yet to come, in terms of cancellations. Why?

We had the best weather in a decade in the summer of 2010. But what if we have 26 days of thunderstorms in June of 2011, like we had a couple of years ago. That would be a nightmare. Then the numbers of cancellations would be doubled or tripled.

Your initial findings in July, which were based on a month’s data, was heavily criticized by the Transportation Department. How have you addressed the government’s concerns about the first report?

I’ve been doing this 30 years, and this is the first time DOT has done a press release on one of my studies. (Update: DOT did it again in response to this study.)

We used the same methodology and we’ve added a layer — the additional data from this summer. We have a high level of confidence in our study.

The new report seems to support the airline industry’s argument that if a three-hour rule is introduced, it will lead to more cancellations. Some have suggested that you set out to prove that correct, because of your connection to the industry. Say it isn’t so.

This is probably the first time in the history of the universe that the airlines are right on something. It may never happen again.

[Goes off the record.]

The airline industry predicted there would be unintended consequences of the tarmac delay rule. But I never thought there would be unintended consequences. I always thought the consequences would be predictable.

We don’t have a connection with the industry.

In your conclusion, you say the rule should be adjusted. How should the three-hour rule be fixed, in your opinion?

We don’t want the rule to be eliminated. We need more data. We just want clarification of the guidelines.

When I drive to Florida on I-95, the speed limit is between 65 and 75. If I go 66, I have a reasonable assumption that I won’t get fined. The airlines need [the same assurances]. They need clarification.

One thing we’re asking for is that the government agree not to pursue investigations where the pilot initiates a return to the gate before 2 1/2 hours of on-board delay. Also, we think the DOT should defer expansion of the tarmac rule to international flights or small airports until enforcement changes show lower cancellation trends.

We have data now that shows the consequences of the rule. We need guidelines. We are asking for the rule to be modified.

What can consumers do if they want the three-hour rule modified?

I think consumers can put pressure on the government. They’re the reason the three-hour rule was put in place to begin with. The airlines weren’t acting they should — they weren’t acting like adults.

(Photo: Cari bb/Flickr Creative Commons)