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What the New Tarmac Delay Rules Mean

Unsurprisingly, the Department of Transportation's (DOT) new tarmac delay rules have generated some pretty divided responses from industry analysts and advocates on both sides of the argument. The prevailing arguments are:

  • It's a Christmas miracle for passengers: “This is indeed a wonderful holiday gift," said Kate Hanni, of Flyersrights.org, "and a major victory for any airline passenger who has ever been subjected to an unnecessary tarmac delay and has endured endless hours without food, water or adequate toilet facilities."
  • It's going to be a mess: Air Transport Association CEO James C. May: "We believe [the new regulations] will lead to unintended consequences—more cancelled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible. Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one."

But beyond these platitudes (and we'll return to them shortly) are some good observations that signal what we can expect when the rules go into effect, and what the next step will be in the ongoing passenger rights debate.

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George Hobica, at our sister site Airfarewatchdog.com, says this can't be all about the airlines. "Airports need to get involved to make these new rules workable," he writes, "and they’re just not equipped yet to do so. Surplus gates need to be set aside, and while that’s certainly possible at airports that have experienced traffic cutbacks, it’s not at others. If no gates are available, then airports need to buy people mover buses with mobile stairways to bring passengers from marooned aircraft to the terminal."

Scott McCartney at the Wall Street Journal's Middle Seat Terminal blog agrees, and says even more needs to be done behind the scenes. "The DOT needs to put air-traffic control procedures [in place] to help airlines deplane passengers without major disruption or penalty. Controllers need to be willing to move planes around to get stranded planes out of a conga line of jets, if necessary. Work rules for pilots need to be clear so that a crew that returns to a gate doesn’t time out simply because it returned to a gate."

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told the New York Times that the stiff penalty means airlines are "going to have to re-engineer to fix the problem."

Noticing a theme?

The point here is that these regulations are the first step on the long road to a reformed airline industry. The DOT has essentially created a set of rules the industry, as constructed, cannot reasonably achieve. And to its credit, the DOT is focusing on the what rather than the how, saying "We want this, you figure out how to do it." The changes Hobica and McCartney describe are changes the industry could have, and probably should have, made years ago. The DOT clearly agrees in principle, but has stopped short of telling the airlines exactly how to accomplish the feat.

And so both platitudes are true: This is great for passengers because the business now has to rethink itself with a singular focus on passenger rights. But with airlines, air-traffic controllers, pilots and crew, and airport officials all forced to accept a massive paradigm shift on the fly, it's going to be a messy process (which is likely why there are so many loopholes around the three-hour rule).

And that's exactly how the DOT wants it, because a truly reformed industry must come from the industry itself, albeit with some serious nudging from the government (hello $27,500-per-passenger fines). The DOT is not pretending to know the best means for achieving this end, and it's correct to do so. Just as it's correct to demand more from the industry it oversees.

It's classic hands-off regulation, and with little choice for the airlines but to comply, it may just work.

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