Fines for delayed flights cause problems

By Julie Johnsson

            CHICAGO _ Lengthy tarmac delays are down sharply since the Obama administration threatened airlines with stiff fines for stranding passengers. But the harm to passengers far outweighs benefits consumers derive from the new rule, according to a study released Tuesday.

            Transportation Department officials disputed the findings, defending the new passenger protections as effective.

            Faced with the prospect of multimillion-dollar fines for every seriously delayed plane, airlines are taking no chances, researchers said.

            Federal officials had estimated that 41 flights per year would be canceled as a result of the new rule, which levies fines of $27,500 for each passenger trapped on board without the option to exit three hours after an aircraft pushes back from a gate.

            During May, the first full month under the rule, airlines canceled at least 140 flights out of concern for violating the three-hour limit, according to Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks, aviation consultants and the researchers who conducted the study.

            The number of flights that were canceled after two- to three-hour tarmac waits soared 41 percent, and diversions rose 26 percent during May.

            Carriers are returning planes to gates by the 2 {-hour mark as a precaution, even though the fines apply to aircraft left on the tarmac for more than three hours, the study found.

            But federal officials blasted the study as unreliable, saying it’s impossible to read future industry trends into one month’s data. While there was a slight increase in cancellations during May, airlines’ 1.24 percent cancellation rate for the month was lower than the 1.51 percent rate averaged by the industry during the previous 15 years, Transportation Department data showed.

            “Airlines know the rules, and they know they have to take passenger protections into account when making scheduling and operational decisions,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

            But the sharp increase in cancellations of already-delayed flights suggested that over-cautious airlines are scrapping flights that would have taken off in previous years, to passengers’ detriment, Jenkins said.

            “Here’s the bottom line: They predicted 41 cancellations per year, and after one month we saw more than 140. So, they’re off by a factor of 10,” said Jenkins, who founded George Washington University’s Aviation Institute, which he headed from 1991 to 2003.

            Jenkins and Marks estimate that 2,600 flights annually will be canceled to avoid violating the rule, forcing more than 200,000 passengers to wait an average of 17 hours to find other passage, the study found.

            Over 20 years, pre-emptive cancellations could cost the American public between $3.5 billion and $3.9 billion.

            Tarmac nightmares tend to occur during the late afternoon and over the summer months, when airlines grapple with unpredictable weather.

            In a July 20 letter to LaHood, Jenkins urged federal officials to better explain how they intend to enforce the new rules so that airlines don’t face “punitive and disproportionate fines” for minor infractions of the delay limit.

            “This will reduce unnecessary flight cancellations and diversions,” Jenkins said.

            Still, the new rule has had its intended effect. The number of departing flights delayed for more than three hours dropped from 35 in May 2009 to just one flight a year later.

            Those benefits will multiply over the course of a year. At least 110,000 passengers will not be confined on aircraft longer than three hours, while more than 500,000 people on delayed aircraft will receive food and water because of the rule, the study found.

            The study can be found at