Late Flights Rose After U.S. Bid to Stem Traveler Tarmac Holdups

  • Study says airlines increase delays to avoid tarmac fines
  • Starting in 2010 airlines were penalized for stranding planes

A U.S. rule designed to spare travelers from being stranded on the tarmac has actually spurred significant additional flight delays.

Airlines facing fines of as much as $27,500 per customer if domestic planes are stuck on the ground for longer than three hours are now canceling many more flights, researchers from Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found in a study released Monday.

“The rule is estimated to have significantly increased passenger delays, especially for passengers scheduled to travel on the flights that are at risk of long tarmac delays,” Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering who is one of the study’s authors, said in an e-mailed statement.

The researchers concluded that the government should consider modifying the rules, which went into effect five years ago, by extending the time allowed in tarmac delays to 3 1/2 hours and to be more lenient in determining when a violation is triggered.

The study is the latest volley in a battle over how best to protect passengers from the most extreme delays, such as when planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport were stuck during a Feb. 14, 2007, snow storm for as much as seven hours without access to food.

The Department of Transportation in 2010 enacted regulations imposing fines for delays over three hours on domestic flights. United Continental Holdings Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. have each agreed to pay fines of over $1 million for delays exceeding the limit.

As a result of the rule, long tarmac delays have fallen dramatically. There were 1,654 cases in which planes were stuck on the ground for longer than three hours in 2007. From 2011 through 2013, there were only 17, according to the study.

However, the study concluded that for every minute of time saved on the tarmac, actual passenger delays are three minutes longer. It was based on actual delays that passengers suffer if they are late, such as if they miss connections and must wait for another flight.

The study was based on data on long tarmac delays before and after the rule went into effect, and changes in airline policies on when to cancel flights. That information was projected onto 2007 flight data to estimate the impact on current operations. 

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