More evidence the 3-hour tarmac rule is bad for consumers

When the Department of Transportation announced in December 2009 that they were setting a hard limit on the amount of time flights could be delayed (the so-called "3-hour rule") before the operating carrier would be subject to significant fines there was quite the debate as to its potential impact. Many lauded the government for helping protect the passengers while others (self included) raised the point that more cancelled flights is worse for passengers than being stuck on the airplane but actually getting to the destination. Nearly a year into the new program the data available suggest that, so far, customers are losing far worse than expected from this policy.

With nine months of data available it is pretty clear that the number of 3-hour or longer tarmac delays is down. The DoT is making sure to trumpet that news and many media outlets are picking it up and running with it. They even have a pretty graph showing the impact of the rule:

Seems great, right? It is not.

Yes, there are fewer folks spending entirely too long in the plane on the way to wherever they are going, but that does not mean they are actually getting where they are going. It turns out that the number of flight cancelations has increased dramatically during this period as well, both as an absolute number and as a percentage of total scheduled flights. Actually, the latter is even worse as the total number of scheduled flights has decreased since the rule went into effect.

Here’s another look at the data, compiled based on the statistics published by the same federal agency that the DoT is using for the above numbers (click the images for the source data):


Yes, the variation in the size of the lines is much more dramatic in the bottom graph, but Marshall McLuhan would not be amused. It may look like the decrease in 3-hour delayed flights is more dramatic than the rise in cancelations, and in terms of percentages it is. But most significant is that the number of passengers displaced is MUCH higher because of the increased cancelations.

Oh, and the total number of flights operating each month was lower in 2010 than in 2009 so the fact that the cancelation numbers are higher in 6/10 samples and essentially the same in 3/10 is not a particularly comforting thought at all. That’s 90% of the sample since the rule went into effect where the percentage of flights canceled was higher than the previous year.

Load factors are running at or near all-time highs. This means that once a flight is canceled it is even harder to accommodate the affected passengers as there simply are no empty seats to place them in. So increasing the number of canceled flights certainly doesn’t seem to be the way to solve the problem of inconvenienced customers.

It should be pointed out that correlation certainly does not equal causation. Maybe there is another reason that there were so many flights canceled. But there is weather every year and the impact of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was mostly confined to April 2010. Ironically that was the one month of the past 10 that had a lower cancelation rate.

Penalizing lots of customers for the sake of a select few is a bad way to operate. The Department of Transportation needs to take a hard look at these numbers and reconsider this policy. Delays and cancelations suck for everyone. The government should not be in the position of inducing them.

A bit more coverage of this phenomena can be found here, too

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Here’s a way to make a dramatic chart. On the same chart show, by month, the net reduction in 3-hour tarmac delays, and the net increase in flight cancellations. For example in January, 19 3-hour delays were eliminated, and the increase in flight cancelations was 6,301. In December 31 3-hour delays were eliminated and flight cancelations increased by 4,962. And maybe it is worth doing a single chart that lists the sum for the 9-month period.

  2. This is a completely fallacious analysis driven by political ideology rather than statistics.

    This past winter saw record breaking storms with record breaking frequency. Not adjusting for that is no different from not adjusting for the Icelandic volcano eruptions.

    Tsk tsk.

  3. I did account for the volcano. That month actually had fewer cancelations so you cannot claim that it is all weather. The following 7 months – none of which were in the midst of huge winter storms – all had higher cancelation rates at a page that outstripped the decrease in 3-hour delays.

    That’s not even taking into account the December or January numbers. Sure, the snow may have contributed to those but I believe there is more to it. Without the threat of a $3MM/aircraft fine perhaps the airlines would have been more aggressive in getting the flights off the ground rather than just canceling them – and displacing passengers – with the government’s blessing.

    The numbers are solid. They may not be happy or exciting, but there have been more flights canceled in the past 10 months – and by more than the number of delays reduced – than in the year prior.

    Last February had winter storms that were significant enough that the Feds actually released a special accounting of their impact on the airlines. It will be interesting to see how they compare to the storms this February which were also pretty insane.

    And, Carl, I tried a lot with the charts but the scale between the two data sets is off by so much that stacking them didn’t work well at all.

  4. Then exclude Dec & Jan and look at May – November. There are 6000 more cancellations in those 7 months, with fewer scheduled flights, to result in a bit over 400 less 3-hour tarmac delays. So a net increase of about 15 canceled flights for every 3-hour delay avoided.

  5. I think what really matters is what passengers themselves think. Stuff the impact on airlines (for now)…

    We as people who are suitably seasoned at air travel and embrace it have our own views, but what of the supposed masses of people who seemed to be the impetus to forcing the creation of the rule in the first place? Does anyone know that more cancellations are taking place? Has anyone questioned why more cancellations are happening? (It may not be due to this new rule, but there’s equally no evidence saying that it cannot be one and/or the primary reason).

    It doesn’t help when someone from claims that “any sane person would rather experience a cancelled flight compared to being stuck on a tube for seven hours with no food, water or toilets”. I suppose if you put it that way – a plane on the tarmac going no where has a tendency to resemble a Russian gulag – then perhaps no sane person would, but more seriously I’d really like to contest whether such a claim was verified with….”sane”….people.

    Perhaps the next step is to institute something like the EU Regulations for irregular operations, which covers cancellations and delays (although there doesn’t appear to be a clear cut explanation of what happens if a flight within the EU gets stuck on the tarmac for over 3 hours – is that treated as delay or a delay only applies if the flight hasn’t “departed”). That would seemingly take the same approach that this 3-hour rule did in the first place: attempt to solve a problem by not contributing to the solution but instead adding considerable pressure on those who have the problem via excessive monetary damages (the latter half of that solution technique is to claim that said threats and pressure helped drive down the problem when – yet again – said people who applied the pressure actually did nothing to contribute towards solving it). Not to mention that airlines will really see red if EU like regulations with compensation schedule is instituted for North American / USA travel (and/or inter- those regions)…..

  6. On a multi-leg flight, a 3 hour delay (or 2 hour or even 1 hour) is the equivalent of cancelling the flight to begin with – if you can’t make your connecting flight, there’s no point in flying half-way.. so I don’t see the difference. I’d rather have my flight cancelled up front, so that I can replan ASAP. Also, when is the last time that you experienced a significant delay, and were told upfront that “it will take about 3 hours” ? I expect NEVER. We are always told “another 20 minutes” and 20 minutes creep into hours. Again, I’d rather be told upfront, rather than lied to time and time again.

    1. The problem I have with the rule is that it induces the airlines to not even try. Yes, the every 20 minutes updates are frustrating but the new policy seems to be just canceling the flight outright rather than trying to make it work in an hour.

      Missed connections are a pain, too, but I generally prefer to have the opportunity of getting closer to the destination or not. With the new rules I lost that.

  7. Although it’s fruitless to respond to such a biased article, I find it fascinating that the author did not include last February’s cancellations (the rule was not in effect) which were extremely high. Higher than almost any February since cancellation data became available. But no one cares about that month because the rule was NOT in effect….but if it were in effect it surely would have been blamed for the “snowmaggedan” event which crippled the east coast.

    Airlines don’t cancel flights because of the rule, they cancel flights because they cannot get them off of the ground.

    The primary gaping loophole in the rule is that tarmac time does not begin until the door is shut, the brake is released, the blocks are removed and the plane is pushed back from the gate. So basically you have several airlines loading up planes and sitting at the gate for hours (because the rule and/or fines will not impact them). The ancillary power is off, air conditioning is off, and no food or water is served. Tarmac time does not begin until they push back so we have many reports of planes sitting for well over 5 hours total, but the reported tarmac time is only that time spent on the apron or in the penalty box….and guess what? Most of the flights that end up sitting for a protracted period of time DON’T take off anyway. They end up cancelled. So adding insult to injury.

    Which begs the question, outside of a need for throughput; why are they putting you inside the plane when you can rest comfortably and safely and freely in the terminal?

    If you exclude particular data then your results cannot be trusted. If you look at the 15 year averages for flight cancellations, even including the December blizzards in New York, 2010 was the second lowest year for flight cancellations….

    But again, if the author of this article were interested in the truth they would not have excluded the first four months of 2010 and they would have included the last 15 years data as a realistic model for comparison.

    The GAO is coming out with a report in June that will clarify the reality of flight cancellations.

  8. Kate: The February cancelations were not included because the corresponding data for 2011 is not yet available. And if you are going to claim that February 2010 needs to be included then certainly we shouldn’t exclude December 2010 and January 2011 as many before you have suggested.

    You also cannot argue that the number of 3-hour tarmac delays was significantly decreased due to publicity of the issue even before this rule went into effect. The airlines were responding and they were addressing the problem. Sadly, however, they were not given the opportunity to finish those efforts before the Feds stepped in and gave them coverage for simply stranding passengers at the airport.

  9. This arguments in this article are seriously flawed. Weather this past year was some of the worst on record. Of course many more flights would be cancelled. As someone who has been stuck on the tarmac more than once, I want off that plane. Three hours is far too long even to the passengers.

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