Tarmac-Delay Rule Makes Cancellations More Likely, GAO Says

The U.S. government’s effort to eliminate longer delays on airport tarmacs has made it more likely that airlines will cancel flights, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.

U.S. airlines were 24 percent more likely to more than three times as likely to cancel a flight in 2010 after the three-hour tarmac delay rule went into effect, compared with the previous year, according to the GAO report.

Lengthier delays on the ground have been almost wiped out since the rule took effect, federal records show. U.S. airlines must offer passengers a chance to get off stuck planes or face fines as high as $27,500 a customer, according to the Transportation Department limit that took effect in April 2010. It was extended to non-U.S. carriers last month.

The rule “is associated with a greater likelihood of cancellations for flights that taxi out onto the tarmac,” the GAO said, citing a review of flight records and statistical modeling. “Furthermore, our results suggest that the greater likelihood of cancellation increases with the time a plane stays on the tarmac.”

Likelihood of Cancellation

Airlines were 24 percent more likely to cancel a flight before leaving the gate during the most delay-prone months of the year, May through September. The GAO compared those months in 2009 against the same period in 2010.

The longer an aircraft sat on the tarmac, the more likely the airline was to cancel the flight, the analysis found.

A flight parked on the tarmac for as much as an hour was 31 percent more likely to be canceled, it showed. Planes that sat two to three hours were more than three times as likely to be canceled, according to the report.

The U.S. Transportation Department and a passenger advocate defended the tarmac rule and questioned the GAO’s figures.

“I completely disagree with it,” Kate Hanni, who founded FlyersRights.org after her flight was stranded on the ground in 2006, said in a telephone interview. “The flying public overwhelmingly supports this tarmac rule.”

In its response to the report, the DOT argued that the tarmac rule is justified by how passengers were treated during longer delays on the ground, sometimes remaining for hours without access to food, water or working lavatories.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation’s actions to protect airline consumers have virtually ended extended tarmac delays and have strengthened basic rights for airline passengers,” Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in an e-mail. “And, so far, our analysis has not indicated that the rule has directly affected cancellation rate.

Tarmac delays three hours and longer fell to 20 from 693 during the first year the rule was in effect, the report showed.

Rural Delays Higher

In separate findings from the same report, the GAO found that DOT’s data undercount the extent of flight delays and disruptions at airports serving communities with less than 50,000 people.

The DOT requires the largest airlines to report on on-time arrivals. That leaves 31 percent of airline flights carrying 15 percent of passengers, mostly on small carriers serving rural communities, that are not reported, the DOT said.

Flight disruptions are worse at these rural airports, the report said. Since 2005, flights from these rural airports were about 3 1/2 times more likely to be canceled or diverted as flights from large metropolitan communities, the report said.

The GAO used data from a private firm, FlightStats, to study the rural delays.

The delays at rural airports aren’t reflected in the DOT delay data. The DOT statistics show delays, cancellations and diversions are slightly less likely at rural airports, GAO said.

Even though all the major airlines report their delays to the government, some of the unreported delays occur on flights that passengers book through those airlines, the GAO said. In those cases, the major carriers contracted with small regional airlines for the flights.

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