Updates the 4th paragraph to add US Airways' exemption request in Philadelphia.
For years, U.S. airlines have occasionally trapped passengers aboard airplanes, with overflowing toilets and food shortages making national news. A new federal rule that takes effect Apr. 29 aims to end such horror stories by imposing fines on carriers as high as $27,500 per passenger for flights that sit for more than 3 hours without allowing travelers to disembark.
Good news for travelers, right? Some air warriors aren't so sure. They say the law of unintended consequences is about to strike air travel as the seemingly helpful mandate prompts airlines to cancel flights that face a reasonable prospect of getting stuck in a takeoff queue. "This is a case of the government trying to do something right but overreaching," says Carl Meyer of Hartland, Wis., who flies more than 40 weeks per year as a vice-president at BSN Medical, a medical device maker.
In response to the regulation, furious airline executives are hoping air travelers blame the Transportation Dept. for increased flight cancellations. "Many passengers at 2 hours and 45 minutes, they really want to go to L.A. or Mumbai or wherever, but the government, by God, says 'We're going to fine you $27,500.' So guess what we're going to do? We're going to cancel the flight," Continental Airlines (CAL) CEO Jeff Smisek told an investor conference on Mar. 9. "And with the loads we've got today, you're not getting there for maybe days. And so the government is inconveniencing more passengers by passing what is candidly a very stupid rule." A Transportation Dept. spokesman, Bill Mosley, said airlines can schedule flights "more realistically" to avoid cancellations and that the rules will help travelers "choose carriers that do not have tarmac delays, do not routinely cancel their flights, and will provide adequate assistance to passengers."
Beyond their public criticisms, Delta Air Lines (DAL), American (AMR), and JetBlue (JBLU) are asking the Transportation Dept. for an exemption from the rule at New York's JFK International Airport, citing construction that has closed a runway there until at least July. Continental wants an exemption at its Newark (N.J.) hub and at New York's LaGuardia Airport because of air traffic congestion. On Mar. 22, US Airways (LCC) also requested an exemption for Philadelphia, where it operates a hub, saying that the airport shares the same air traffic control center as New York and "has the same congestion challenges as JFK, LaGuardia and Newark." The New York region, one of the most densely packed airspaces in the world, has long confounded operations for hub-and-spoke carriers.
Airlines are now reassessing when and how they cancel flights, as well as trying to figure out taxi times at various airports to determine how much time pilots will need to get back to a gate before they incur fines. Delta has formulated such plans for more than 70 airports. American currently observes a 4-hour cap on tarmac delays and will adjust that based on airport conditions, spokesman Tim Smith wrote in an e-mail: "At some point (depending on the size of the airport and the number of aircraft out on the tarmac in queue—could be at 2 hours, 2 and ½ hours, or whenever) we absolutely must start the trip back to the gate to get the aircraft door open." Virgin America will shorten the time it takes to decide whether to cancel a flight during a delay, moving from 3 hours to 2 hours after passengers board. On Mar. 13, a Virgin America flight to JFK was diverted due to heavy rains in New York and the 126 passengers had a 4½-hour wait before they were bused into the city. "It is safe to say that we would not be taking any chances" about incurring a fine, Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini wrote in an e-mail.
The steep fines—which come to more than $5 million for a full 757—would dwarf the revenue from virtually every commercial flight. But the industry's rhetoric obscures the fact that the likelihood of an airline paying up is small. For one thing, the rule has already accomplished one of its prime regulatory objectives: commanding attention at the CEO level for a recurring customer-service problem. That means, at whatever the cost in canceled flights, a likely end to the horror stories. What's more, a flight that's canceled represents lost revenue and no airline can afford to scrub too many of them.
Currently, mass cancellations occur only during major weather events. In February, when multiple snowstorms walloped the East Coast, airlines scrubbed nearly 38,000 flights, more than 5% of the total, according to Oregon-based FlightStats, which tracks flight data. But the new rule means that many "marginal" flights—those that may or may not have a realistic chance at departure amid poor weather—will be canceled earlier. For example, airlines might scrub many of their morning departures to a fog-bound San Francisco even if there is a 50-50 chance those flights would operate with delays.
Beginning in 2009, the industry began to aggressively cancel flights ahead of storms and started waiving flight-change fees in a bid to reduce passenger delays and clogging of airports and reservation lines. The shift to cancel early came partly because technology now allows many itinerary changes to be handled online. Moreover, with airlines reducing their seat capacity in a bid to reverse financial losses, load factors have been pushed higher. That gives airlines an incentive to shuffle as many of their disrupted passengers onto other flights as early as possible. Dorothy Dowling, senior vice-president of marketing and sales for hotel chain Best Western International, who flies more than 250,000 miles a year, says that's fine by her, since customers waiting to meet with her tend to be "very understanding" about snarled flights. "When I know the bad weather is coming and I'm sitting in Chicago or Denver, I'm very quick to say 'I'm bailing now' and will go get a hotel room," says Dowling, who is based at Best Western's Phoenix headquarters.
Indeed, for many business travelers, an increase in flight cancellations is likely to have only minor effects. Many, like Meyer and Dowling, enjoy "elite" status as frequent fliers. Airlines put these travelers, their most loyal customers, at the head of the queue when it comes to finding alternate flights. They will also buy tickets on other airlines when necessary.
Business vs. Leisure Travelers
But with business travel showing signs of rebounding this spring, a slew of canceled flights could be bad news for leisure fliers. There could be more missed weddings and cruises, forfeited hotel reservations, and shortened family vacations as business fliers get bumped into seats on the next flight. Or the next. "We thought the cure was going to be worse than the disease," David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., said of the new tarmac delay rule. A telling sign of the rule's effect will come with summer thunderstorms that develop quickly and mar operations at big hub airports like Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Miami, and Houston. In 2009, June far exceeded all other months for tarmac delays topping 3 hours, with 278.
In cases where storms close an airport or hobble flight operations, Ron Vigdor, who flies 400,000 to 500,000 miles annually, has some advice for airlines: "Call me ahead of time."
"I'd much rather you tell me you can't do it than you string me along," says Vigdor, CEO of BornFree, a Boca Raton (Fla.)-based company that makes baby-feeding products. "Just tell me! I would much rather get a call and say we're not flying than go to the airport and sit around and be told every 30 minutes 'We'll update you in 30 minutes.' "