Brad Cooper, The Kansas City Star, October 7, 2011
Rarely do we hear stories anymore about planes waiting hours for take-off with irritable passengers complaining of steamy cabins, no food, no water and overflowing toilets.
Now, you're more likely to hear passengers grumbling about canceled flights to weddings, key business meetings and pivotal sporting events -- an obstacle not easily overcome when airlines run fewer and fuller flights.
A surge in flight cancellations -- in Kansas City and nationally -- is casting doubt on the value of a new federal rule promising to come down hard on airlines that leave passengers stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours.
Critics of the rule -- backed up by a new federal audit -- say it's causing thousands of passengers to miss flights canceled by nervous airlines that don't want to pay the $27,500-per-passenger fine for violating the time limit on the tarmac.
"It was plain and clear what was going to happen," said Joshua Marks, an aviation industry consultant. "There are millions of passengers impacted by cancellations that you likely would not have seen canceled prior to the rule."
The bad publicity also is causing consumer advocates to get anxious about the rule's future should a new president be elected in 2012. They dispute whether the rule has led to more canceled flights.
Kate Hanni, a consumer rights advocate for airline passengers, said cancellations change wildly from year to year and most are caused by bad weather, a point echoed to an extent by some airlines. She questioned the audit's conclusions.
"There's no easy way to quantify the number of flights canceled because of the tarmac-delay rule," she said.
The tarmac rule was imposed at the end of April 2010 after the federal government became fed up with the growing number of lengthy delays.
While the new rule has nearly eliminated tarmac delays of three hours or more, a recent audit by the Government Accountability Office concludes that it appears to be associated with an increased number of cancellations -- far more than initially predicted.
This year through July, 2.4 percent of all flights nationally had been canceled, the second highest cancellation rate since 2002, according to federal data.
Kansas City has experienced a similar spike. Canceled flights were up almost 50 percent this year through July, equaling 2.4 percent of all arriving and departing flights.
President Barack Obama's administration defends the tarmac rule, emphasizing that long tarmac delays have practically been eliminated.
"The Obama administration believes that consumers are entitled to strong and effective protections when they fly, and that they should be able to expect fair treatment from airlines," said Olivia Alair, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Officials said the number of tarmac delays extending beyond four hours dropped to zero for the year ending in April 2011, from 105 the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of three-hour delays dropped from 693 to 20 for the same period, officials said.
Federal transportation officials said their analysis doesn't show the rule has directly affected cancellation rates. However, they say they are studying a year's worth of data to determine the effect of the rule.
The GAO looked at the issue a little differently. It compared air traffic from May through September 2009 to the same period in 2010, just after the rule was imposed.
It found that the number of cancellations increased by 5,068. The overall cancellation rate jumped from about 1 percent of all flights to about 1.2 percent.
Auditors also found that flights sitting on the tarmac for two to three hours resulted in more cancellations, going from 148 in 2009 to 248 last year.
The audit confirmed what the industry predicted before the new rule started, said Steve Lott, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.
"It does beg the question: Is this rule providing benefits to the public?" Lott said.
For the 15 months since the rule started, there have been 51 reports of tarmac delays longer than three hours. No one has been fined, although several incidents are being investigated.
Most of the delays didn't violate the rule, officials said. In several cases, the airlines made good-faith efforts to get back to the gate. In those instances, the airline received a warning.
Other delays involved exceptions to the rule, including safety or security, or pilots being advised that returning to the gate would disrupt airport operations.
Some airlines concede they are canceling flights for fear of missing the three-hour deadline. But they believe other factors such as weather and congested skies also have played a large role.
Southwest Airlines has the biggest market share in Kansas City. Its KCI cancellations -- counting arrivals and departures -- jumped to 304 in the first seven months of this year compared to 164 in the same period last year, federal statistics show.
Southwest canceled more than 8,000 flights nationally in the first seven months of both 2010 and 201l after averaging about 5,200 in each of the previous eight years.
Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the airline canceled about 300 flights in April so it could inspect planes like the one that made an emergency landing in Arizona after part of its fuselage ruptured. Mainz also pointed to a May ice storm in Denver as another culprit.
"We have had more cancellations specifically due to the three-hour rule this year versus last year, but it's certainly not enough to make up that entire difference," he said.
Tim Smith, spokesman for American Airlines, said his company is now more likely to cancel flights in advance if it can forecast a storm that might leave a plane stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours.
The three-hour rule, Smith said, "makes the situation incrementally worse than it would have been."
But overall, he said weather -- not the new tarmac rule -- is the biggest factor in deciding when flights are scrubbed.
"We have always been affected by weather and its ensuing air traffic control delays," Smith said.
Hanni, the consumer advocate, took issue with the GAO's findings because the agency focused on only two years of data. "There's no good data to support the conclusion," she said.
Hanni said she was worried about airlines trying to get around the rule by loading passengers onto planes and not pushing back from the gate, even when the chance of cancellation is high. The clock on the tarmac rule doesn't start until passengers aren't allowed off the plane, which is generally when the cabin door is shut.
Airlines, she said, are betting they can take off without having to refund tickets. She calls that a "blizzard-size" loophole in the new tarmac rule.
In the long term, Hanni said she's worried about how the audit could affect the rule.
"I've always felt it was fragile, even without this report."
To reach Brad Cooper, call 816-234-7724 or send email to [email protected].