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Stranded at the Airport: A rule to stop tarmac delays leads to more flight cancellations

Jan 11, 2016   |   The Wall Street Journal

If you were stranded in Chicago or Dallas or (heaven help you) the in-laws over the holidays, you might have the government to thank. A new Dartmouth-Massachusetts Institute of Technology study finds that the Obama Administration’s Tarmac Delay Rule has backfired on passengers by causing more flight cancellations.

In 2010 the Department of Transportation said it would fine airlines $27,500 for every passenger stuck on a tarmac for more than three hours. Last year it dunned Southwest Airlines $1.6 million for keeping hundreds of passengers hostage at Chicago’s Midway airport in January 2014 amid winter storms. Getting waylaid on the tarmac may feel like cruel punishment, but it doesn’t violate the Geneva Convention. Inclement weather and congested airports are usually to blame. Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare airports are among the worst offenders.

The Dartmouth and MIT researchers compared passenger delays in 2007 with hypothetical scenarios if the rule had been in effect. While the rule has been “highly effective in reducing the frequency of occurrence of long tarmac times,” the study found that it has also significantly increased flight cancellations. Passengers must then rebook, which can “often lead to extensive delay in reaching their final destinations.” For each passenger-minute of tarmac time saved, the study estimates that the rule costs three passenger-minutes in delays—usually for the same passengers the rule was intended to help.

None of this is shocking to those who understand that regulation invariably has unintended consequences. When the rule was proposed, airlines warned the result would be more travelling headaches. A Government Accountability Office study in September 2011 flogged an “increased likelihood” of cancellations. Thus does another government regulation inadvertently harm its intended beneficiaries.

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