Tarmac-delay rule gives air travelers more respect

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By Christopher Elliott

If you fear getting trapped on a parked plane on the tarmac during your next trip, you can put your worries to rest.

Only three flights were delayed more than three hours in July, the latest month reported by the Transportation Department. All the incidents happened on the evening of July 23, when a line of “very nasty” thunderstorms swept through Chicago, according to American Airlines spokeswoman Andrea Huguely.

“Unfortunately, the way the weather pattern was that day, we couldn’t park [the planes] on a gate,” she added. please help me to change the passive voice to active voice: “The ramp was closed. Our passengers were given a snack and water. Our crew tried to keep them as comfortable as possible while waiting.”

Assessing tarmac delays

The three American Eagle regional jets bound for Knoxville, Tenn., Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Baltimore were on “hold” while waiting for the weather to clear. The government is investigating the circumstances of those delays but hasn’t issued any fines.

It’s been almost a year since passenger-rights activists held a “stakeholders” meeting in Washington to denounce tarmac delays and call for new rules to end them. And it’s been more than four months since the Transportation Department enacted a rule requiring airlines to allow passengers to deplane within three hours, with exceptions for safety or security. Airlines face a maximum fine of $27,500 per passenger for overstaying that limit.

But only in reviewing the effectiveness of the new tarmac-delay rule has the real problem – and the solution – become apparent. It wasn’t these isolated but maddening delays, but how airlines regarded them, that was troublesome. Regulators looked past the rhetoric of the moment. They ignored the fact that this was a small issue and envisioned a big solution. It had a patchwork of new rules. They believed, they could encourage airlines to think of their customers in a different, and maybe better, way.

Evaluating the impact of the three-hour tarmac-delay rule

Three full months of data are now available for review. In June, thunderstorms caused delays of more than three hours for only three flights, all of them in Chicago. Those planes belonged to United Airlines, which said that it couldn’t safely unload passengers within the time limit. In May, only one flight exceeded the three-hour limit. And the government hasn’t fined any airlines for violating the three-hour rule in May or June.

“As more time passes, it’s becoming clear that the sky is not falling on airlines or their customers over the three-hour tarmac-delay rule,” said Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, who attended the stakeholders meeting last year. “If anything, there are likely new efficiencies and cost savings made possible by complying with the new rule as airlines modify schedules, processes and systems.”

But tarmac delays weren’t really a crisis before the rule went into effect. They were a shameful but exceedingly rare event. In July 2009, the government reported that only 161 out of 580,134 flights, equivalent to 0.028 percent of the total flights for that month, experienced delays exceeding three hours. In June 2009, it was 0.049 percent, and in May it was 0.0064 percent.

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Debates and enforcement

Yet for reasons that aren’t clear to the casual observer, tarmac delays remain a contentious issue in Washington. In July, a team of aviation consultants released a self-funded survey. In concluded that the new rule would cost the flying public $3.9 billion during the next two decades.

The study, which was based on the government’s May airline data, claimed that airlines had proactively canceled 140 flights to avoid violating the three-hour rule.

The Transportation Department issued a rare rebuttal that called the study “questionable” and asserted that the data didn’t support the analysts’ conclusions. A few weeks later, it sent out a press release touting the July tarmac delays as being “down dramatically” from the previous year.

The government has also signaled that it’s ready to enforce the three-hour rule, if indirectly. Earlier this month, for example, it went after Pinnacle Airlines, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines, for failing to submit accurate data regarding delays. The airline initially reported that one of its flights had exceeded the three-hour limit, but upon reassessing its data, it determined that the flight had not experienced a delay of more than three hours. As a result, Pinnacle received a $10,000 fine.

Proposed extensions of the three-hour rule

And there’s more. A comprehensive passenger-rights rulemaking initiative currently under consideration would extend the three-hour rule to international carriers, mandate that airlines coordinate their tarmac-delay contingency plans with all U.S. airports they serve, and oblige airlines to inform passengers of the flight’s status every 30 minutes during a delay. (This outlines the recommended actions for passengers during flight delays.)

What does this mean to the average airline passenger? Your chances of experiencing a flight stuck on the taxiway for over three hours are exceedingly low. They have always been.

But is air travel a better experience now – or were tarmac delays an unnecessary diversion?

In the past year, there’s been a proliferation of airline fees that have effectively doubled the price of some tickets. Service cuts have continued, two major airlines have merged and two more are about to. Passengers are getting less and paying more. (Related: Hartford tarmac stranding doesn’t justify new laws.)

Airline passenger rights and customer service

Did the watchdogs waste their time on the tarmac? Not necessarily, says Charlie Leocha. He is the director of the Consumer Travel Alliance (an organization that, by way of full disclosure, I helped start and continue to advise).

“Although tarmac delays were a small problem, they emboldened the government to help airlines find customer service religion again,” he said. Proposed new rules covering everything from transparent publication of airfares and airline fees to increases in denied-boarding compensation are “strong evidence” that the Transportation Department now expects airlines to treat passengers as people.

Maybe flight delays aren’t such a bad thing, after all. We might as well get used to it. It is here to stay.

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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 São Paulo.

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