January 6 - The 3-hour tarmac rule implementation timeframe needs to be lengthened


January 5, 2010

In a statement released by Business Travel Coalition (BTC) on December 21 regarding the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) 3-hour tarmac rule announcement of the same day, BTC praised Secretary Ray LaHood’s bold leadership. That it was a stunning DOT announcement is not in dispute. Consider a 3-hour deplanement rule, a $27,500 per passenger maximum fine and just 120 days for implementation. Indeed, this is not your grandfather’s DOT; Secretary LaHood is the über passenger advocate!

Since I so much respect the intrepid and pro-consumer approach of Secretary LaHood, it pains me to point out one fundamental problem with the final rule -- the date of its taking effect. However, I feel duty-bound to speak up lest the admirable objectives of the rule be placed at severe risk of failure by the impossibility of attaining airline compliance within the 4-month period, given the multitude of other stakeholders whose active cooperation is essential. Without more time for implementation-planning, chaos will likely reign this summer for business travelers, meeting attendees and leisure travelers alike.

At the New York City-area airports, for example, the 3-hour rule will be unworkable without serious reengineering efforts including reducing schedules, deploying larger aircraft, moving demand to non-peak periods, shifting flights to secondary airports and radically adjusting policies, processes and practices. Given that New York airports are directly or indirectly responsible for 75% of delays across the entire U.S. system, fundamental changes in New York will necessarily impact airlines’ schedules throughout U.S. domestic and international systems. Essentially, airlines will have to take a total systems-view as they reconfigure their approach to the business.

However, before such a radical makeover can progress and be finalized there must be collaboration, buy-in and decisions made by airport authorities, TSA, FAA, Customs, unions and local law enforcement. Airlines cannot unilaterally implement this 3-hour rule. This portion of the process alone will take considerable time to produce decisions sufficient for airlines to complete their reengineering work. In BTC’s view, airlines should be given 12 months, and certainly no fewer than 9 months, to collaborate with stakeholder organizations, plan their changes and implement them. All of this has to be navigated in an ever-shifting aviation system security environment, as the Christmas near-calamity at Detroit and Sunday’s fiasco at Newark remind us.

In 1999, in BTC’s first of four Congressional testimonies against government intervention in the tarmac-delay problem, it stated: “Like other industries that have faced the ominous threat of government intervention, airlines should view this proposed legislation as a major warning and move decisively to address Congressional concerns. The industry needs to take immediate steps to head off this and further Congressional action, which will surely follow, if the industry’s problems are not corrected in the near term.”

So, here we are entering a new decade after 10 years of airline stonewalling on this issue. When I testified in 1999 that if the airlines did not solve this problem, eventually someone would endeavor to do so for them, I never imagined a 3-hour deplanement rule and a $27,500 per passenger fine! Very bold DOT leadership to be sure. However, airlines are not yet out of the woods. DOT’s dramatic leadership might embolden some Members of Congress, not to be upstaged by DOT, to go further with passenger protections, especially if there is another major excessive tarmac-delay event during the coming winter months.

BTC urges the following initiatives:

  1. A humbled airline industry should now reach out to consumer and travel groups, Members of Congress and the Administration and pursue a sincere, long-lasting and productive conversation about passenger rights and customer service.
  1. Secretary LaHood should likewise use some of the enormous consumer goodwill and prestige he has acquired through his substantial leadership on this issue and guarantee the rule’s ultimate success by extending the planning and implementation timeframe for the new 3-hour rule such that airlines can succeed.
  1. No matter the implementation timeframe, a drawdown in schedules at New York City-area airports is exceedingly difficult for airlines to accomplish unilaterally due to competitive reasons. The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ) should take a leadership role, with support from the governors of New Jersey and New York as well as the mayor of New York City. PANYNJ needs to make the case for DOT-administered and Department of Justice-monitored meetings among airlines to adjust schedules. The alternative is chaos and further erosion of business travel and tourism.

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