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TravelHaven News Brief ― Tarmac delays greatly reduced nationwide

The Department of Transportation has released data on the summer travel season that indicates airlines are taking action to prevent delays without canceling flights. It shows show just a single tarmac delay of three hours or more for August, compared to 66 in August 2009. This extends a six month record of fewer than ten long delays per month, since just before DOT implemented its three-hour tarmac-delay rule for domestic flights on U.S. carriers.

Flight cancellations held steady for the month at just 1.0 percent over the year before, a marked improvement over May, June and July at 1.2%, 1.5% and 1.4%, respectively. All three monthly percentages were for 2010 than the previous year.

DOT considers the proportion of cancellations to delays acceptable: “Although the rule has been in effect only a short time, we’ve seen no tangible increase in flight cancellations,” said spokeswoman Olivia Alair, “which means airlines are taking action to prevent delays without canceling flights.”

Some air industry reporters had predicted that the anti-delay regulation would produce an additional 5,200 cancellations per year (both directly and indirectly). The relationship between cancellations and delays is still difficult to determine.

In July 2010, 557 planes sat on the ground for two to three hours after boarding, as compared to 795 in July 2009. 121 of those flights returned to the gate but subsequently completed their flights, while only 75 were ultimately canceled. Both numbers represent an increase over July 2009, indicating that tarmac-delay-related cancellations increased even though airlines did better at getting passengers to their destinations.

The impact of the tarmac-delay rule remains unclear, even as delays of over three hours have all but disappeared. However, the number has been dropping since late 2009, before the new regulation went into effect. Keep in mind, too, that 2010 saw few delays due to summer storms.

Some industry analysts counter that long delays began their disappearing act when airlines were told they would incur great financial cost for such behavior. They adjusted their schedules to avoid the penalties and don’t seem to have suffered any harm thereby.

Dave Pelter, a former airline executive who now operates InsideTrip.com, a flight-rating website, says: “The rule puts the onus on the airlines to perform the best they possibly can. The threat of fines has every airline looking at their policies and procedures to make sure there are no unforced errors on their side.”

“It’s going to be a year before anybody really knows what the level of cancellations attributable to the three-hour rule is,” said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, “but it’s fair to say that the sky hasn’t fallen.”