Airlines threaten to start canceling flights in response to new tarmac rule


Airlines are pushing back against new rules that give fliers more rights.

They are threatening to cancel scores of flights in response to a new rule that would prohibit airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving travelers the opportunity to get off the plane. As of April 29, carriers that break the rule would face steep fines of up to $27,500 per passenger, or more than $4 million on a full Boeing 737 or Airbus A320.

Carriers say that to avoid those fines, they will aggressively cancel flights before and during storms — even if the bad weather never materializes. The threats could foreshadow significant changes in air travel, making it even less reliable for millions of road warriors and vacationers. By canceling flights, it could take days for all travelers to get home when storms strike.

Of course, the warnings from carriers could simply be posturing to pressure the government into leniency. Passenger-rights advocates say airlines are trying to scare fliers. And the Department of Transportation says carriers have other options to avoid fines.

Still, last Tuesday, Continental Airlines Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Smisek threw down the gauntlet, calling DOT’s rule “stupid.” Even though many passengers will risk long delays to get where they are going, “the government by God says, ‘We’re going to fine you $27,500,'” he said at an investor conference in New York. “Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to cancel the flight.”

Other airlines have also raised warning flags. Both JetBlue Airways Corp. and Delta Air Lines Inc. have asked the DOT for waivers from the new rules at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, where the longest runway is now closed for resurfacing, adding to delays at one of the nation’s most-congested airports.

Airlines have already shown that they are willing to aggressively cancel flights. Amid record snowstorms — and in anticipation of the new rules — airlines canceled 34,588 flights in February, nearly four times as many as were canceled in February 2009, according to That meant some travelers who might have been able to fly ended up stuck for several days before empty seats opened up for them on other flights.

“This is real,” said James May, chief executive of the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group that lobbied against the tarmac delay limit. “It’s hard to predict right now how significant it’s going to be, but I don’t think there is any question we’ll see significantly more flights canceled because no one wants to subject their company to those fines.”

The DOT won’t comment on airline motives, but in a statement, spokesman Bill Mosley said airlines have options other than resorting to large-scale flight cancellations.

“Carriers have it within their power to schedule their flights more realistically, to have spare aircraft and crews available to avoid cancellations, to ensure that their crews do not come up against flight and duty time limitations when tarmac delays occur, and to place passengers on other carriers’ flights when flights must be canceled for whatever reason,” Mosley said. Travelers can always switch airlines if one carrier starts canceling too often, he adds.

When bad weather hits

Different airlines have always had different philosophies on handling severe weather, with some aggressively canceling all the time with stormy forecasts and others trying to operate every flight possible regardless of how late those trips might run.

Some carriers believe that canceling quickly offers customers more predictability, allowing them to stay home or hunker down in hotel rooms rather than wait (or sleep) at an airport. And those that try to wait out bad weather and operate as many flights as possible believe customers prefer airlines that make every effort to get you where you want to go, even if it means middle-of-the-night arrivals.

But each strategy has its risks. Delta, for example, was criticized for canceling flights out of New Orleans early before Hurricane Katrina, leaving customers stranded at the airport for the storm. Delta still maintains early cancellations are preferred by customers.

On the other hand, JetBlue, which used to avoid cancellations to an extreme, found itself in a mess in 2007 when a Valentine’s Day ice storm left planes piled up for hours and hours at JFK.

Last year, Continental had the lowest percentage of canceled flights among major airlines, at 0.5 percent of departures, according to FlightStats, a flight-tracking service. But a regional airline flight on behalf of Continental that was left sitting overnight last summer in Rochester, Minn., so outraged the DOT that it fined Continental, its partner ExpressJet Inc., and Delta, whose agent refused to open a gate for the stranded plane. That incident also moved the DOT to enact its new rule.