Flight canceled? The government may be to blame


December 23, 2015

By Catey Hill

The Tarmac Delay Rule in 2010 has led to a jump in the rate of flight cancellations

For hundreds of flyers, Valentine’s Day 2007 ranked as the most annoying day for travel ever. That’s the day a blizzard hit the Northeast, leaving some passengers trapped on planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport for upward of six hours. “It was the Valentine’s Day from hell,” a case study of the incident from the Harvard Business School notes.

That, plus a number of other incidents in which passengers were forced to sit on unmoving planes for hours, led the government to introduce the Tarmac Delay Rule in 2010. The rule stipulates that a plane cannot sit on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers the opportunity to get off; airlines that don't comply with this are fined.

“These new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the time.

Unfortunately for flyers, the government’s rule — while “highly effective” in reducing long tarmac delays — had one annoying side effect: a jump in the rate of some types of flight cancellations, according to a study released in December 2015 from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth.

Indeed, to avoid the fines, airlines are now far more likely to cancel flights that are sitting at the gate or on the tarmac than they once were, explains Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor of engineering at Dartmouth and a co-author of the study. That means you’re now more likely to board your plane, sit there, and then still have the flight canceled.

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