May 10 - The Efficacy of DOT’s 3-Hour Tarmac-Delay Rule


May 10, 2010

Whether or not the U.S. DOT 3-hour tarmac-delay rule represents useful or harmful government intervention in the marketplace is a mostly irrelevant discussion-point now. The important questions at hand include the rule’s impact on airline passengers and how to move forward as an airline industry. Passengers will likely be negatively impacted by the rule, largely emanating from flight cancellations, at least during a transition period of a year or more from April 29, 2010.

Airlines were strongly encouraged since the infamous 1999 snow-blizzard debacle at Detroit, where thousands of passengers were stranded for up to eleven hours, to prioritize extended ground delays as a problem warranting senior management attention. Most airlines did not do so, and as such, they lost control of this issue in recent years as extraordinary delay-events made for sensational headlines in the U.S. and around the world.

Naturally, elected officials gravitated to a headline-making consumer issue. DOT likewise responded aggressively on behalf of consumers with its new rule but did so, in BTC’s view, in a way that did not provide sufficient time for internal airline planning or coordination with federal and local governmental bodies such as TSA, FAA, Border Control, airport authorities and law enforcement.

Such a tarmac-delay rule was not the outcome sought or desired by most travel industry organizations. For example, since 1999 BTC has testified four times in the U.S. House and Senate against government intervention in the marketplace regarding extended ground delays. Indeed, the Customer Service Plans announced by airlines in 1999 was a solution that BTC advanced to ward off Congressional legislation. The principle in play was that airlines, at the firm and industry levels, should be able to solve for these kinds of problems without new laws.

The issue all along has not been the cause of these extraordinary irregular operations but rather how airlines respond to them. Were there coordinated plans in place for such events? Were communications systems adequate? Were staffs trained? Did senior executives care enough to engage? Were their spokespersons indifferent? Too often since 1999 the answers were the wrong ones; airlines did not sufficiently heed the many warning signs.

Passengers realize that we live in a country compassionate enough to send a fire truck to extract a cat from a tree or a Coast Guard helicopter and crew to rescue a dog from a swollen river, and without a second thought. Yet, we allow elderly and health-compromised citizens to be kept on a parked plane in freezing cold or sweltering heat at risk for 8, 10 or 12 hours in poor and deteriorating conditions while some airline industry leaders disingenuously dismiss passenger concerns on the rationale that such circumstances are rare.

Despite the disruption and hardship that is likely to be rained-down on passengers in coming months, the 3-hour rule has in fact forced airline senior managements to finally categorize extended ground delays as a problem to be thoughtfully, if not urgently addressed. Airline hyperbole regarding mass cancellations is really just part continued denial of a legitimate problem and part advance blame-game antics to set DOT up as the cause of all 3-hour rule-related problems.

The fact of the matter is airlines are now forced to fix this problem, and they will. Canceling flight-loads of business travelers will dampen demand just as these high-yield travelers are returning to the market, or drive these customers into the open arms of more able competitors. Mass cancellations represent an unworkable proposition, and well-managed airlines will endeavor day and night to emplace new systems and processes to avoid this highly undesirable outcome.

Airlines should consider immediately working with Congress in a sincere manner to modify existing passenger rights legislative proposals to correct for the problems caused by their own obstructionism over the past ten years and DOT’s flawed approach to designing and implementing its rule. I am confident that industry groups such as BTC would be willing to join airlines in advocating a more sensible and sustainable approach to executing on new extended delay rules. The alternative could be problems so visible at New York City airports this summer that some Members of Congress are incentivized to demand additional passenger protection measures that may not be particularly well vetted.

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