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Do Big Fines Equal More Cancellations?

Last Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fined American Eagle $900,000 for violating the new three-hour tarmac delay rule. Although the rule has been in effect since 2010, this is the first big fine. More are likely in the works, however; JetBlue is already facing similar possible fines for recent delays.

The American Eagle fine could have been worse. The rule says that the fine for an excessive tarmac delay can be as high as $27,500 per passenger, and because the delays involved 608 passengers, the potential hit could have been almost $17 million. And American Eagle won't actually have to pay the government the full $900,000; the airline can offset $250,000 of it by offering various forms of passenger compensation.

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What Critics Say

Still, critics of the rule claim that the threat of multimillion dollar fines will pressure airlines into canceling more flights, including many flights that might otherwise operate despite bad weather. Although the Department of Transportation (DOT) has produced a study claiming that cancellations did not increase after implementation of the new rules, just about everyone else in the business has concluded that airlines actually do cancel more flights—and will probably cancel even more now that the FAA has actually started issuing fines.

Critics also point out that airlines aren't always at fault for tarmac delays. Often, airport snafus and bad decisions are the culprit.

Just about everyone agrees that, in these days of full planes, finding replacement seats for canceled passengers is the most difficult it's ever been. Instead of a few hours of delay, some travelers will face days.

Final Verdict

Given all the circumstances, it seems clear to me that tarmac-delay rules have increased the number of canceled flights and that such cancellations will increase in the future. The unintended consequences of the new rule will far outweigh its benefits. For now, however, the FAA is standing pat.

The most frustrating aspect of this problem is that there is no great consumer advice to share with you about avoiding either delays or cancellations. Sure, you can minimize your chances by not flying to, from, or through airports likely to encounter bad weather, but that's a pretty lame "tip." For now, you can only be reassured that the percentage of flights involved in excessive tarmac delays is extremely small, and your odds of avoiding the problem are good.

Your Turn

Have you ever been affected by a long tarmac delay? Share your experiences below.

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