Tarmac rule worked as planned
Published: Monday, March 14, 2011, 6:16 AM
By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist The Star-Ledger

Andrew Harrer/BloombergU.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
By Ray La Hood
The Star-Ledger’s editorial on the Department of Transportation’s rule prohibiting airline tarmac delays to no more than three hours (“Grounded without recourse: FAA must fix tarmac rule so fliers aren’t stranded by unexpected cancellations,” March 9) seriously overstates the rule’s impact on flight cancellations.

Since the new rule took effect in late April 2010, unreasonably long tarmac delays — sometimes leaving travelers stranded aboard aircraft without access to food, water or working lavatories for hours on end — have virtually disappeared. Between May 2010 and January 2011, the first full nine months since the rule took effect, the airlines reported only 16 flights stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours, compared to 604 during the same period the previous year. Most of those delays were barely over three hours, while many of the long tarmac delays of the past often stretched to four or five hours — or more.

This achievement in protecting airline passengers has not brought with it the “surge” of cancellations claimed by The Star-Ledger’s editorial. Looking at flights canceled after a two-hour tarmac delay — those most likely to be canceled to avoid violating the rule — we see that in the first full nine months since the rule went into effect, carriers canceled 312 flights after tarmac delays of more than two hours, compared with 268 such cancellations between May 2009 and January 2010.

When you consider that there are 8.7 million domestic flights in any given year, an increase of 44 cancellations is hardly significant — particularly given the snowstorms that caused many cancellations across the United States in December and January. It is quite possible that when a full year’s statistics are evaluated, they will show no notable increase from the previous year.

We also have looked into whether carriers might be canceling flights before a two-hour tarmac delay — or even before leaving the gate — due to concerns that weather, congestion, closed runways or other factors might cause a lengthy ground delay. We looked at airports that experienced more than one two-hour tarmac delay between May and October in both 2010 and 2009, taking into account all cancellations that might have been related to tarmac delay concerns. We found there were 7,120 of these proactive cancellations in the first six months after the rule took effect in 2010, compared to 8,696 flights during the same months of 2009 — before our tarmac rule existed.

We believe airline passengers have fundamental rights to fair treatment when they fly. Our tarmac delay rule has resulted in a massive drop-off in the kinds of unconscionable and intolerable extended tarmac delays that left people stranded for hours, without recourse and without good information on when their ordeals would end. And, we have done so without causing the widespread cancellations that airlines and others have insisted would follow.

The Obama administration is proud of its efforts to protect airline passengers and will continue to ensure consumers are treated fairly.
Ray LaHood is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.