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Tarmac Delays Dropping as New Rule Takes Hold

Here’s what we know about tarmac delays in May: There were only five, one of the lowest monthly totals since the Department of Transportation (DOT) began tracking statistics in 2008.

As far as figuring out why there were only five, well, it depends on who you ask.

As most people know, the DOT’s new tarmac delay rules took effect in late April, making May the first full month with the three-hour time limit in place. It would seem to be a logical conclusion, then, that the policy was successful in limiting delays—and to a point, it certainly was. Tarmac delays have been decreasing even since the DOT announced its new limit in December. There were actually fewer such delays—four—in April.

But to call the policy a “resounding success,” as passenger rights advocate and tarmac-delay crusader Kate Hanni did, seems premature.

First of all, cancellations did rise, but only slightly, from 0.9 percent in May 2009 to 1.2 percent in May 2010. This is a miniscule number, so small that it wouldn’t bear mentioning if airlines hadn’t spent months threatening massive cancellations due to the DOT rule. But the airlines did proclaim catastrophic cancellations, so it’s worth mentioning that cancellations inched upward during a month with relatively few disruptions beyond the new rules.

Speaking of disruptions, tarmac delays are usually the result of widespread and/or severe storms striking high-traffic areas like New York City, Chicago, and Atlanta. May was fairly quiet. Let’s see what happens in December.

If it seems like I’m dismissing the DOT’s policy, I’m not. What we have here is one month of data that, quite frankly, tells us quite little about the policy’s effectiveness or the airlines’ response to it. On the surface, it appears the DOT got what it wanted: Minimal tarmac delays with mild side effects. But the big picture won’t come into focus until the airlines are dealing with winter weather and holiday crowds.

Readers, are you optomistic that the DOT policy will work, or waiting to see what happens in coming months?

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