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Study: Tarmac delay rule just makes things worse

Jan 05, 2016   |   by Harriet Baskas   |   USA Today

The tarmac delay rule put in place in 2010 by the Department of Transportation to protect fliers from being stranded for hours on airplanes during long delays has actually made travel delays longer, a new study finds.

The study compared actual flight schedule and delay data before and after the rule went into effect and found that, while it has been very effective in reducing the frequency of long tarmac delays, the rule has raised cancellation rates overall and created longer travel times.

“Cancellations result in passengers requiring rebooking, and often lead to extensive delay in reaching their final destinations,” the study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded.

The tarmac delay rule was put into place after a series of highly publicized incidents left passengers stuck in airplanes during ground delays for lengthy periods of time and, among other provisions, imposes hefty fines on airlines that violate a three-hour tarmac delay limit.

“There are definitely some good effects of the rule and some estimated bad effects of the rule,” Vikrant Vaze, an assistant professor at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, a co-author of the study, told Today in the Sky, “We’re trying figure out if there’s a somewhat better way to do something similar.”

The study proposes a modified version of the DOT’s rule that increases the tarmac limit by a half-hour, to 3 ½ hours, and applies it only to flights with planned departures before 5 p.m. The study also suggests that the tarmac time limit to be defined as “the time when the aircraft begin returning to the gate instead of being defined in terms of the time when passengers are allowed to deplane.”

Passenger rights groups that first urged DOT to create protective rules have yet to weigh in the new study, but Airlines for America, an industry trade group, would like to see these reforms.

“The tarmac delay rule has actually caused more harm than good for the traveling public,” said A4A’s Vaughn Jennings, managing director of government and regulatory communications. “The rigid structure of the rule in its current form has resulted in unnecessary delays in getting passengers to their intended destination, as carriers seek to avoid overly punitive fines from DOT.”

For his part, Vaze has had just one personal experience with a long tarmac delay.

“My preference would be to not have any delay at all on the tarmac and still reach my destination on time,” said Vaze. “That’s what we all want, right? This study says there’s a trade-off to be made and you need to pick the right option from several versions. We picked what we think is the sweet spot.”

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