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Tarmac Delay Rule: Help or Hindrance?

The U.S. government’s rule on extended tarmac delays is now fully in effect. The idea is to prevent airlines from keeping passengers “hostage” for more than three hours on planes waiting to take off or park at a gate. The rule requires that airlines allow travelers to deplane after three hours of going nowhere, and must provide adequate ventilation, water, and sanitary services during the period. Some exemptions apply, but, in general, an airline that keeps passengers past that limit will face a fine of “up to” $27,500 per passenger. But what then?{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

Clearly, the new rule will accomplish its stated goal: to reduce, or even eliminate, extended delays. A fine of up to $4 million for one ordinary 737 or A320 flight isn’t chump change: Airlines will do whatever it takes to comply with the rule.

Equally clearly, airlines will react by canceling flights—perhaps lots of flights—that might otherwise continue to operate, if late. Several airlines have already started doing just that, and the others will surely follow. “When in doubt, cancel” is the new mantra.

And those inevitable cancellations raise serious questions about what travelers can do when airlines cancel their flights instead of delaying them.

The worst delays—the ones that generated the push for the rules—have happened in very bad weather. Sure, airlines and airports involved made mistakes—including some stupid mistakes—but bad weather was the root cause. We’re now heading into a season of relatively good weather, so the real test will not come until next winter. And the crux of that test will be on what you can do if an airline does, in fact, make wholesale pre-emptive cancellations rather than risk fines.

Although the new rule gives you a clear “right” to get off a plane, that’s the rule’s only requirement. Cancellation rights are governed by each line’s contract of carriage, and the language in these contracts really doesn’t address many of the important questions travelers will face.

Accommodations. When an airline cancels your flight due to weather, it has no requirement to arrange your meals or accommodations. The new rule doesn’t modify this question at all. All U.S. lines’ contracts say that, in the event of cancellation due to bad weather, their only requirements are to offer you either a seat on the next available flight or a refund.

Rebooking. The airlines are quite vague about any conditions for getting a seat on that “next available flight” promise. The Iceland volcano mess showed that different lines treated rebooking differently:

  • They all waived the cancellation/rebooking penalties, even for nonrefundable tickets, but for only limited—and very different—rebooking and travel time windows.
  • Some limited rebookings to the same fare class as the original ticket; others just required the same class of service.
  • Some limited rebooking to identical origin and destination points; others allowed some itinerary changes.
  • None promised to protect fare prices for rebookings beyond the limited windows. Travelers who didn’t rebook quickly had to take their chances on the price.
  • None appeared to give any priority to canceled travelers over new ticket purchases immediately after the cancellations.

The net result in that case was that many travelers had to wait days or even weeks for replacement flights, or had to rebook at sharply higher fares.

In the future, I suspect that if your flight is canceled because of the tarmac rule, you’ll face similar obstacles. To avoid significant cost penalties, you’ll have only a few weeks to rebook your trip and maybe only a few weeks or months to take the replacement trip. You may have to find replacement seats only in the same fare class, which could be tough for the lowest-priced tickets.

It’s much too early to determine whether the new rule is a net benefit or detriment to travelers. But what I can say is that anyone on a canceled flight will have a tough time scoring a replacement seat at the original fare.

Do you think the new tarmac delay rule will help or hinder your travels? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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