Two weeks ago the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released commercial airline performance statistics for the month of October, something they’ve been doing every month for the past 13 years. What was remarkable about this release was that, beginning October 1st and for the first time in history, airlines were required to report tarmac statistics for diverted and cancelled flights, and other tarmac delays.

Following mass tarmac strandings in late 2006 and early 2007, in which thousands of passengers were held on airplanes for 9, 10 and 11 hours without food, water and adequate restroom facilities, airline passenger consumer advocates began arguing for federal legislation to address the problem. Airline lobbyists countered by citing government statistics that showed, for example, that only 36 flights were affected by tarmac delays of over 5 hours in 2006, and thus the problem wasn’t significant enough to warrant congressional intervention.

There was just one problem with the airline’s argument; the statistics weren’t accurate. They weren’t even close. In the spring of 2007 when articles began appearing in major media outlets citing these statistics, Kate Hanni, who by then had founded the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, got suspicious and asked her research department to look into the matter. After sifting through Bureau of Transportation (BTS) statistics and DOT regulations, the truth emerged. It turned out that the government was omitting flight information for potentially thousands of tarmac strandings;

  • On December 29, 2006, over 120 diverted flights were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the southwest; some for over nine hours.
  • On February 14, 2007, dozens of flights that were eventually cancelled were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the northeast for up to 11 hours.
  • On April 24, 2007, a large number of diverted flights were stuck on tarmacs at airports in the southwest for up to 8 hours.

The list goes on and on, and many other incidents will be forever unknown except by those who suffered through them. None of these flights were counted by the airlines or by the government. There were no statistics. It was as if all this never happened. And this is just the way the airlines wanted to keep it.

The only reason anyone knew about these incidents was that passengers got angry. They called the media and they called Kate Hanni’s hotline. So Ms. Hanni and her supporters fought hard to get the airline statistics rules changed, and last spring, the DOT enacted regulations that closed many (though not all) of the reporting loopholes. Those new regulations went into effect on October 1st.

When the statistics for October were finally released two weeks ago, airline lobbyists were dancing in the streets. The statistics showed that 50 flights had been stranded for more than 3 hours, and 6 had been stranded for more than 4 hours. It took only minutes for airline funded mouthpieces masquerading as consumer advocates to begin heralding the report as a defeat for airline passengers’ rights.

But they missed the point, again.

First, the new statistics aren’t intended to expose chronic tarmac delays during months when everything goes right. They’re intended to count tarmac delays when things go wrong. Even still, 34%-to-38% of the newfound data is due to the new regulations.

Also, before October 1st, there was no way for the public or the Congress to understand the extent of what the airlines were doing when things went wrong. Now there is.

In addition, the new regulations are a victory for the tens of thousands of passengers stranded on tarmacs in the past who were never counted. And they are a victory for every passenger that flies today and in the future not only because many of the loopholes have been closed, but because now (like never before), the airlines know we are watching. And that alone could provide the motivation necessary for them to treat their passengers better.

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