Being stuck on plane vs. canceled flight – which is worse, the disease or the cure?


U.S. airline passengers face more flight cancellations as carriers led by Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co. seek to avoid fines for keeping planes waiting on the tarmac longer than three hours.

A rule by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, taking effect April 29, would impose fines as high as $27,500 for each customer when an airline fails to free passengers after three hours. The Air Transport Association said carriers will cancel flights rather than breach the limit, and a travel group said flights scrapped in New York may rise as much as 15 percent.

“Cancellations could go up, but it’s not a bad thing,” said Kate Hanni, a passenger advocate who lobbied for the rule after being trapped for nine hours in 2006 on an American Airlines plane in Austin, Texas. “The cancellations are going to prevent people from being stuck on the tarmac.”

AMR Corp.’s American and JetBlue Airways Corp. kept planes on the ground for as long as 10 1/2 hours in late 2006 and early 2007, fueling passenger protests. Continental Airlines Inc. and two regional partners were fined $175,000 in November for holding 47 customers on a plane overnight at Rochester, Minnesota, last year. The fine could have been as much as $1.29 million under the new restrictions.

Carriers including Delta and American said they plan to limit tarmac delays, after saying for months they needed flexibility to keep flights on the ground to prevent broader disruptions to their operations.

“We will do our absolute best to comply,” said David Castelveter, spokesman for the Washington-based Air Transport Association trade group. “This will result in unintended consequences — more canceled flights, and more inconvenience for customers.”

Passenger Alternatives

When an airline cancels a flight, passengers will be in the airport terminal with access to alternatives, LaHood said.

Passengers “can rent a car and drive to wherever they need to go, or they can rebook their flight, or they can go to a motel,” LaHood said in an interview. “None of that can happen while they’re sitting cooped up on an airplane.”

The rule, which applies only to domestic flights, has an exemption that lets pilots cite safety or security concerns to keep planes on the ground more than three hours. Air-traffic controllers also can waive the three-hour limit if they determine returning a plane to the gate would disrupt airport operations.

The rule requires airlines to provide water and snacks, such as pretzels, when the delay is from two to three hours and to assure that bathrooms on the plane are functioning.

Canceled Flights

Airlines declined to predict a rate for cancellations tied to the rule. They canceled 89,377 flights last year, or 1.39 percent of total departures, according to the Transportation Department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Carriers reported 903 U.S. flights with runway delays exceeding three hours, and 5,410 stalled for two to three hours.

Cancellations tend to come in bunches during foul weather, said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Virginia. Rebooking passengers from abandoned flights won’t be easy with an average 80 percent of airline seats now filled, he said.

“Reasonability has departed the building,” Hamlin said of the rule. “This is a classic case of trying to regulate operations in a way that’s difficult.”

Southwest, the Dallas-based carrier with the most domestic flights, plans to never have a tarmac delay of more than three hours, spokeswoman Beth Harbin said. The rule may force cancellations of flights which “we would have tried to err on the side of continuing to operate” previously, she said.

Delta, American

Delta, the world’s largest carrier, “will either be wheels up within three hours or back at the gate,” spokesman Anthony Black said from the airline’s Atlanta headquarters.

American, the second-largest U.S. carrier, has adhered to its own four-hour rule and “just adjusted that plan for three hours,” spokeswoman Andrea Huguely said for the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline.

In 2008, when President George W. Bush’s administration considered and rejected a deadline for freeing passengers, carriers said such a rule might cause delays to cascade through the air-traffic network.

“All of the issues that were brought up in the long study of this still remain,” said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association in Washington. “This may be as passenger unfriendly as any rule I’ve ever seen.”

Airports handling more flights than can be accommodated at peak hours, such as Kennedy, Newark and LaGuardia serving New York City, could see cancellations rise roughly 10 percent to 15 percent in the first year, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition.

Business Travelers

In the second year, airlines will have adjusted their operations, said Mitchell, whose Radnor, Pennsylvania-based group represents corporate travel managers.

“If the airlines have one concern, it is the high-yield business customer,” Mitchell said. “It’s unworkable to just say, ‘I’m going to cancel, cancel, cancel.’”

The rule ultimately is “going to end up to be a positive for the travel experience,” he said.

Hanni, who founded of Napa, California, after being stranded on Dec. 29, 2006, said an increase in cancellations will be slight and airlines can prevent logjams with better scheduling practices.

“The airlines know the jig is up,” Hanni said. “I just don’t think it’s going to be this catastrophic situation that airlines are presenting.”