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Now US Airways Wants Tarmac Exemption … in Philly

US Airways has asked that its operations at Philadelphia be exempt from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) tarmac delay rules while runway construction is underway at New York’s JFK Airport. The Associated Press’ (AP) Joshua Freed writes that in a filing with the DOT, US Airways argues that Philadephia is “only about 100 miles by air from the New York airports and shares their air traffic control jurisdiction. It may share their delay problems, too.” US Airways also points out that “on March 13, 11 flights headed for New York-area airports diverted to Philadelphia because of bad weather. The extra demand caused a delay for departures from Philadelphia.”

This makes five airlines trying to use the JFK situation as a temporary escape from the DOT’s rules, and two airlines that are seeking exemptions at airports other than JFK: JetBlue, Delta, and American have all requested relief at JFK, while Continental has asked for an exemption at Newark, and now US Airways at Philadelphia.

Ben Mutzabaugh at Today in the Sky rightly wonders whether or not the tarmac delay rule is starting to unravel, and the airlines are clearly hoping the answer is yes. They have formed a unified bloc in opposition to the bill, promising passengers waves of cancelled flights and long waits to rebook and finally travel—basically a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. All of this is the government’s fault, they say, the result of what Continental CEO Jeff Smisek called a “very stupid rule.”

The flip side, of course, is that the airlines have done little to improve upon the DOT’s rules, and decided to simply cancel flights and point fingers, claiming utter helplessness against the great beastly agency.

But it’s not like the DOT’s rules are completely inflexible. Perhaps the airlines didn’t read the section of the rules that states the three-hour limit can be ignored when “the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related impediment to deplaning passengers (e.g. weather, air traffic control, a directive from an appropriate government agency, etc.), or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations.”

This language outlines why the DOT should, and very well may exempt airlines operating at JFK, or at least forgive extended delays there on a case-by-case basis. A closed runway obviously makes timely operations more difficult, so the DOT should cut some slack where it’s needed. But this language also gives so much leeway to the industry in general that it makes other carriers’ requests for broad exemption rather weak. Take US Airways’ March 13 scenario, for example. This seems to me like a case where weather could be cited as cause for forgiveness, but in the context of the rules, should not warrant a sweeping exemption.

The DOT’s rules aren’t designed to punish airlines for bad weather or other circumstances beyond airlines’ control. They are designed to discourage avoidable, inexcusably long tarmac delays and encourage more realistic scheduling. Are the rules perfect? No. Some of the requirements, such as deplaning passengers after three hours, for example, could create a security and operations nightmare at airports.

But that’s exactly the DOT’s point: Tarmac delays, rare and isolated as they are, shouldn’t be a nightmare. And so the DOT decided to challenge the industry to find a good way to handle them. Quite frankly, the industry’s response to this challenge—a childish mix of whining and foot-stamping—has been underwhelming so far.

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