Business Travel

FAA’s New Tarmac Rule A Success

Sometimes government regulations help, sometimes they hurt. Here is an example of the government getting involved and making a big difference for the consumer.

On rare occasions, airlines have, for one reason or another, left passengers stranded on aircraft, either at the gate or on the tarmac. I was once stuck on a British Airways flight at Heathrow for over seven hours before they decided the aircraft could not fly and switched us to another one. Other, more famous incidents include:

  • August, 2009: 47 passengers were stranded overnight aboard a Continental Express plane at the Rochester, Minnesota airport. Their Houston to Minneapolis flight had been diverted due to bad weather. Once they arrived at Rochester they were not allowed off the plane for six hours, spending the night on the plane with no water and overflowing toilets.
  • December, 2006: Kate Hanni, was stranded with her husband and two children for 9 hours on the tarmac in Austin, Texas.  Hanni later went on to form, an organization dedicated to the creation of the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights. the bill would allow passengers in the US allows passengers the option of getting off delayed planes after 3 hours on the ground, and require airlines to provide adequate food, water, temperature controls, ventilation and working toilets to accommodate a 3-hour delay.

In response to these and other incidents, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new rules in December 2009 that established a 3-hour time limit after which U.S. airlines must allow passengers to deplane from delayed domestic flights. In addition carriers would be required 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.

Passenger rights organizations supported the rules, the airlines opposed them saying that they would lead to additional flight cancellations. They argued that an airline faced with the possibility of a 3-hour tarmac delay of a flight, would simply cancel it rather than have to comply with the new rules. They took affect at the end of April 2010 and, so far, appear to be a great success.

May 2010 was the first full month of the rules being in affect. In May 2009 there were 34 tarmac times of more than three hours; in May 2010 there were only five.  A subsequent Department of Transportation investigation determined that four of the five May flights were misreported by the airline.

In June 2009, the FAA reported 268 flight with tarmac delays of three hours or more. In June 2010, that number dropped to only three (all three were United flights at Chicago O’Hare on a day when winds exceeded 75 miles per hour.) As far as the increase in cancellations that the airlines had predicted, that did not happen.  The airlines canceled 1.5 percent of their flights in June 2010, the same percentage as in June 2009.

So, tarmac delays dropped 85 percent in May, and then an incredible 99 percent in June. The airlines also reported a slightly higher percentage of on-time flights in June 2010 compared to June 2009.  See the Department of Transportation’s press release for all the details.

Will the rules be as helpful four months from now when winter storms cause airports to shut down? We’ll see, but in the meantime the good news is that the rules are working exactly as intended. That’s good for the traveler, and whether they admit it or not, it’s good for the airlines too.