Your Flight Is Canceled, Starting Today!


A while back, I blogged about the Department of Transportation's new "tarmac rule." In an effort to protect airline passengers' "fundamental right to be treated with respect," the government announced that it would soon begin enforcing new rules that fine airlines per passengers for any tarmac delay that lasts more than three hours. And the fines are huge: $27,500 per violation, which means a delayed 747 jammed full of people headed to their summer vacations could cost the airline more than $13 million.

The rule went into effect today. And it's still a terrible idea that won't work:

The potential price for violating the rule means that in the short term, many domestic airlines will likely act "with an abundance of caution," says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, and that planes sitting on the tarmac getting too "close to the three-hour bubble will [return to the gate] and be cancelled," he says.

"This is a very well-intentioned rule. The problem is that it has some loopholes," notes George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, referring to the tarmac rule's two exceptions: A pilot doesn't have to deplane passengers if he determines there's a safety or security issue, or if air traffic control tells him that deplaning would disrupt the airport. "If the captain decides it's not safe [to deplane], all bets are off," Hobica explains, "but what's not safe? What if there are no gates and no way to get passengers from the gate to the terminal except for walking across an active taxiway—all bets are off—[the airline] won't get fined." Likewise, if no gates are available and there's a thunderstorm, Hobica says, the pilot likely won't feel it's safe to deplane then, either.

Hobica suggests that the airlines won't be able to obey the tarmac rule successfully unless the airports—who are not subject to the fines—become part of the solution by either making emergency deplaning gates available at all times or, in the absence of an available gate, providing a bus equipped with a movable stairway that could drive to the aircraft and deplane passengers. "A spare gate is lost revenue for airports and they are loath to do that," Hobica says, "but they need to get people off plane safely—so you either need to bring transportation to the plane or bring people to the gate and that's going to cost money."

And airport/airline cooperation isn't exactly a given on stuff like this. For more on the messed up air transit system in this country, check out anything on the subject by the Reason Foundation's Bob Poole.