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Battle Looms Over Airline Cancellations/Tarmac Delays

July 26, 2010 By: George Dooley

In a rare move that adds to the ongoing controversy over tarmac delays and flight cancellations, the Department of Transportation (DOT) criticized a study released by a pair of aviation consultants purporting to show that the DOT’s rule establishing time-limits on tarmac delays hurts, rather than helps, consumers.

“The study, conducted by two business consultants for aviation companies, offers a misleading and premature assessment of the impact of the new passenger protections,” the DOT said, winning support for its position from the Business Travel Coalition (BTC).

The BTC, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) and the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) all support a three-hour rule on tarmac delays.

The DOT said the flawed study is based on one month of airline on-time data in May 2010 and “is far too narrow to yield defensible conclusions about future airline trends. Further, the data reported in May 2010 does not support the industry consultants’ claims about rising numbers of airline cancellations.” Airlines have warned of massive flight cancellations this summer due to the DOT’s policy.

“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. “The Department of Transportation is committed to protecting the rights of airline passengers – starting with firm limits on tarmac delays – and no one should be misled by this unreliable study. While there was a slight increase in airline cancellations in May 2010 compared with May 2009, an analysis of May cancellations over the last 15 years shows that cancellations in May 2010 were below average. In fact, the rate of airline cancellations in May 2010 was below the average rate for all 15 previous Mays with comparable data: 1.24 percent in May 2010 compared to the average of 1.51 percent.

“The same May 2010 data show many cases in which airlines did take the appropriate action to avoid lengthy tarmac delays without canceling flights,” LaHood continued. “In May 2010, there were 86 incidents in which airlines took action to ensure passengers were not stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours and still delivered them to their scheduled destination. In May 2009, there were only 22 such incidents.”

The BTC entered the fray, asking if the reports are credible. The new rule went into effect on April 29, 2010, requiring U.S. airlines to provide passengers an opportunity to deplane after three hours of an extended tarmac delay, on most commercial aircraft, providing it is safe and operationally feasible to do so.

The two airline consultants analysis was exceedingly critical of the DOT’s three-hour rule asserting that the public harm from the rule could reach some $3.9 billion over 20 years. The BTC questioned the conclusions based upon just the first full month’s aggregation of flight-cancellation data.

The analysis, is seriously flawed on many levels, according to the BTC. “The factual and statistical defects in this study are stunning and include: ignoring the significant and complex work ahead for airlines to efficiently comply with the three-hour rule; avoiding the central fact that passengers need only be given the opportunity at three hours to deplane versus canceling a flight; dismissing the built-in exceptions to the three-hour rule for safety and unworkable operational conditions and basing conclusions on only the first full month of data since the rule has been in effect,” the BTC argued. “The airlines brought the three-hour rule on themselves after 10 years of not treating the issue as a management priority; on this there is nothing to debate. The issue all along has not been the cause of these extraordinary irregular operations, e.g., severe weather systems, but rather, how airlines responded 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 early warning signs of government intervention coming at them.”

In the airlines defense, the BTC noted that the DOT gave just 120 days for airlines to prepare for the three-hour rule. “This was a terribly insufficient amount of time to implement the rule given the enormous work that will be required to make adjustments, which includes complex internal airline planning as well as negotiations with federal and local governmental bodies such as TSA, FAA, Border Control, airport authorities and law enforcement,” BTC said. The BTC also praised Continental and US Airways for taking steps to comply with DOT policy.

Despite the disruption that is likely to be rained-down on passengers this summer, the three-hour rule has in fact forced airline senior managements to finally prioritize extended ground delays as a problem to be thoughtfully, if not urgently addressed, the BTC said, warning of the impact of mass cancellations on the traveling public.

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