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Six years ago, the US Department of Transportation announced new rules to regulate flight delays. The rules stated that airlines couldn’t let aircraft remain on the tarmac at US airports for more than three hours — four hours for international flights — without deplaning passengers.

Furthermore, the rules required airlines “to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.”

Long delays were starting to become the norm before the DOT
Long tarmac delays were starting to become the norm before the DOT’s new rules. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

These rules came as a result of what had become a chronic problem of serious tarmac delays. From January to June 2009, 613 domestic flights were held on the tarmac for three hours or more, and these delays were affecting about 100,000 passengers annually.

Passenger rights advocates cheered these rules, as they logically should help travelers have a better travel experience. The DOT has issued fines to violating airlines, like $1.1 million to United in 2013, which should certainly incentivize carriers to take the rule seriously.

Rather than risk a lengthy tarmac delay, it
Rather than risk a costly tarmac delay, it’s easier for airlines to just cancel flights.

However, the overall effects haven’t been as positive as one would expect. In fact, they’ve actually been negative!

Last month, a Dartmouth/MIT study was released showing that, “Overall, the rule is estimated to have significantly increased passenger delays, especially for passengers scheduled to travel on the flights that are at risk of long tarmac delays.”

How can that be? Well, instead of risking getting a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger, airlines are much more willing to simply cancel the flight.

Rebooking after a cancellation is usually not quick or easy.
Rebooking after a cancellation is usually not quick or easy.

If you’ve ever been on a canceled flight — especially on a lightly serviced route — you know how that can end up: lengthy lines and long wait times to rebook, sometimes even requiring re-routing the long way.

Indeed, this is just what the authors of the study noted:

The results show that the rule has been highly effective in decreasing tarmac delays, especially long delays, but each passenger-minute of tarmac time saving is achieved at the cost of an increase of approximately three passenger-minutes in total passenger delays. This is due primarily to increases in flight cancellations, resulting in passengers requiring rebooking and often leading to extensive delays in reaching their final destinations.

In order to avoid passengers being stranded overnight, the study suggests amending the rule to exempt flights with scheduled departures after 5pm. Also, the study suggests lengthening the allowable time to 3.5 hours from 3 hours and stopping the time accrual when the plane starts to head to a gate.

Have you ever been trapped on a plane during a tarmac delay? What do you think about these recommendations?

H/T: Travel Weekly

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