TPG Exclusive: Airlines Stranding Record Number of Passengers on Tarmacs

Feb 13, 2019

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United flight 1293 started off like any other trip. It pushed back from the gate in Santa Ana, California, on time, and in just a little more than five hours it crossed the entire country — landing safely at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.

But that’s where the problems began.

The plane sat and sat. It wasn’t until three hours and 51 minutes after touching down that passengers were able to get off the Boeing 737 that they had been on for more than nine hours.

So much for a short hop across the country.

Flight 1293 passengers were hardly the only ones to suffer through such delays last year. In fact, 2018 was the worst year for tarmac delays since the government started fining airlines for those delays nearly a decade ago, a TPG analysis found.

According to TPG calculations of data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 244 flights were delayed for more than three hours in the first eleven months of 2018. That’s up from 242 during the entire year in 2017. The 2018 pain is likely to be even higher since the government has yet to release data around December air travel.

Airline delays are commonplace in the travel and airport experience, but the frustration is exacerbated when passengers are already aboard an aircraft, trapped in their seat and unable escape to an airport restaurant, bar or lounge.

The issue first came to a head in 2007. After a serious ice storm lead to cancellations and delays at New York’s JFK airport, hundreds of passengers were stranded inside JetBlue aircraft on the tarmac, some for more than 10 hours.

JetBlue’s mismanagement of that day, which is now referred to as the Valentine’s Day Crisis, spurred a so-called Passenger’s Bill of Rights and eventually lead to US government action. The Department of Transportation started imposing serious fines on airlines in 2010, up to $27,500 per passenger, for delays on the tarmac that lasted longer than three hours for domestic flights or four hours for international flights.

That means, for instance, that the DOT could fine United Airlines up to $3.2 million for the delay on the 118-seat Boeing 737-700 from Santa Ana to Newark, assuming it was full. And that wasn’t the only flight delayed that day due to an early-season ice storm in the New York area.

But the government has historically been restrained in levying large fines on airlines.

At first, airlines reacted to the new regulations by heavily reducing the number of flights that sat on the tarmac for lengthy periods. Bringing aircraft back to the gate early instead of waiting out the delay also led to a significant rise in flight cancellations.

When the government started issuing fines, airlines were keeping these dreaded problems to a minimum. But as our analysis has found, in the last five years there’s been a steady uptick of tarmac delays. In 2014 there were just 39 delays, which then jumped to 120 two years later and 242 by 2017.

Year Tarmac Delays of Three Hours or More
2018 244*
2017 242
2016 120
2015 78
2014 39
2013 98
2012 47
2011 62
2010 34

*Data from December 2018 not yet available  

But why are the airlines willing to put up with the lengthy delays if they’re going to face such a steep penalty? The truth is, they aren’t.

“Tarmac delays are getting much worse because the DOT is hardly ever fining airlines for violations and allowed the airlines to open up new loopholes,” said Paul Hudson, president of the air passenger advocacy group, Flyers Rights.

Passengers can request to go back to the gate after an aircraft has sat three hours on the tarmac, but Hudson says that airlines are convincing passengers that they should stay onboard or else be punished.

“The biggest maneuver airlines are now using is to tell passengers after three hours they can exit but will not be allowed to re-board or retrieve their baggage,” said Hudson. “They will also be separated from their baggage if the flight departs.”

The most recent fine came when Frontier violated the rule in 2017 and was penalized $1.5 million dollars. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines both faced $1.6 million fines for tarmac delays in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The DOT has some wiggle room in the way it enforces the rules since the policy is not to fine airlines for rule violations unless they are “egregious or repetitive.”

Aviation industry analyst Robert Mann told TPG another reason airlines may have been holding on the tarmac longer is to improve their flight completion factors, a general trend in the industry, since heading back to the gate could result in a higher chance of cancellation.

These delays are affecting at least 50,000 passengers annually, notes Hudson, which is still significantly less than before the enactment of the three-hour rule in 2010. The 2018 delays, while quite bad, are nothing compared to how often planes sat on the tarmac prior to the DOT restrictions. In 2009, the last full year before the rule took effect, 868 planes sat on tarmacs at least three hours or more.

Airlines have revamped their operations to prevent such incidents. New software was written for their headquarters flight operations centers to monitor any plane at risk of nearing three hours and to alert top managers. Plans were revamped for diversions. If a primary airport was closed due to bad weather, the airlines would now try not to send all flights there. In the past, flight dispatchers weren’t always aware of what other dispatchers were doing, and 40 jets might end up at an airport with only six gates.

Some of the delays can be blamed on bad weather. That is a possible reason the DOT did not fine the airlines. For instance, United 1293 was one of many flights that sat idle on Nov. 15 in the Northeastern US while airlines attempted to wait out bad weather.

“United flight 1293, from Santa Ana to Newark on November 15, 2018, arrived into Newark on time, however, was delayed arriving at the gate due to difficult and unsafe operational conditions caused by Winter Storm Avery,” United said in an emailed statement to TPG. “No forecast predicted the extreme nature of the storm, which paralyzed not only Newark Airport, but the entire region. Flight 1293 was one of many flights delayed by the snow and ice which prevented safe movement of aircraft on the tarmac and contributed to the airport’s severe congestion.”

“Airlines are operating with all cylinders rolling,” Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines captain and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association told TPG for a previous story on tarmac delays. “There’s lots of metal in the sky. There are limited gates. There’s a tendency for those who run spreadsheets and models to jam an extraordinary number of flights into very narrow time slots. When the weather burps, it can create catastrophic cascading effects.”

An Airlines for America spokesperson told TPG that there were several operational challenges for airlines last year that caused the increase in tarmac delays, including a rise in disruptive weather events and a higher volume of flights.

If you’ve experienced a lengthy tarmac delay that caused you to miss a connecting flight, then you may be covered under a credit card’s trip delay insurance. If the delay was non-weather related, you’ll need to claim with the airline first.

This story was updated on Feb. 20 to correct the statistics for 2017.

Featured image by XavierMarchant / Getty Images.

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