Are Tarmac Rules Causing More Flight Cancellations?

According to a new study, the recently enacted DOT regulations that levy huge fines against airlines for planes that sit on the tarmac for more than three hours have been forcing carriers to cancel flights rather than face possible stiff penalties.

In May alone, researchers claim that at least 140 flights were canceled rather than face potential tarmac delays and possible fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

According to the study, the number of flights canceled after 2-3 hour tarmac waits has increased 41% while diversions have increased 26%.

“Uncertainty about enforcement has driven severely risk-averse behavior by airlines,” explained the researchers about their findings.

The researchers have written to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, asking for DOT to clarify how it plans on enforcing the rule, especially for minor infractions of only a few minutes. Their hope is that, if airlines can be reassured that they won’t face a multi-million dollar fine for going 1 minute over the limit, they won’t preemptively cancel or divert that flight.

Flight cancellations climb under new tarmac rules [Chicago Tribune]


Edit Your Comment

  1. AdamBC says:

    I don’t really feel bad – it sucks to be stuck inside a plane with no idea when you’ll get to take off. At least inside the terminal you can walk around, buy food and use the facilities.

    • DrWebster says:

      Exactly — I’d much rather be inconvenienced by a canceled flight than be trapped in a sardine can for 3+ hours.

    • tasselhoff76 says:

      Yeah, I don’t see why I am supposed to have sympathy for a multi-million dollar corporation that cannot figure out whether my plane will actually take off in a *3 hour* time frame.

      • DanRydell says:

        The airline doesn’t control when your plane takes off, the airline only controls when your plane gets in line to take off.

        • Scarficus Rex says:

          Well said.

        • Joe_Bloe says:

          The one thing the airline does control is how many flights they schedule at an airport, at the same time. I support this new rule, because it provides a counterbalance to the pure market “let’s create a completely imaginary jam-packed schedule of flights so we can compete for dollars, with absolutely no chance of meeting the schedule” approach.

          • DanRydell says:

            The thing is, it’s not just one airline, it’s many airlines at each airport. So if airline A decreases their schedule, they’re just helping all of their competitors.

            I believe the airports have control over how many flights they allow to arrive and depart, so it would at least partially be the airport’s fault if they’re allowing too many flights.

          • ARP says:

            Google “The Tragedy of the Commons” and you’ll get your answer.

  2. IphtashuFitz says:

    I’d rather have a flight canceled on me then get stuck sitting in a grounded airplane on the tarmac for 3+ hours. At the very least I can eat, go to the bathroom, etc. I also can go back to the ticket counter and get on another flight. Can’t do any of that if you’re effectively imprisoned by the airline.

    • Griking says:


      This is exactly what the airline industry said would happen when the new laws were passed.

  3. wcnghj says:

    I’d rather have my flight cancelled then be forced to stay on the plane, or leave and lose my seat..

    • You Can Call Me Al(isa) says:

      I realize it was probably a typo, but using “then” instead of “than” made the sentence mean something completely different than you meant it to… and it made me laugh!
      Instead of one or the other you’d prefer both?! ;-)

      • wcnghj says:

        Hahahaha, I did mean “than.”

        • Mike says:

          OK, that typo made me laugh out loud. I just pictured some consumer masochist: “Yeah baby, make me wait. Don’t give me a refund! You know what I like!”

          Thanks for the laugh. :)

  4. dreamfish says:

    I’d like to know root causes in these situations. Is it the result of bad scheduling on the airlines part (which may be a consequence of penny-pinching) or is it a wider problem due to congestion, airport rules, FCC rules, limits of ATC or simply the cascade effect of a complex system that is running at maximum capacity and capability?

    • ARP says:

      Airlines cram as many flights into ATC as they can, even if they don’t need them to prevent other airlines from getting too many spots.

    • SunnyLea says:

      All of the above.

    • barty says:

      It is mainly a matter of there not being enough runways and gates to park the planes at. Assuming there’s no weather in the mix, once a plane is airborne, there’s almost always a way to get it to its destination.

      ATC and the airports tell airlines how many aircraft per hour a given airport can handle, in good VFR weather and assuming darn near minimum separation between aircraft. Airlines just choose to routinely ignore those numbers and intentionally over-schedule above and beyond this best case scenario. Throw in any number of issues, weather, volume at other airports, etc., particularly at an airport like JFK, LGA, or EWR, and you are going to have delays.

  5. dragonfire81 says:

    Reading all these consumerist stories about lost luggage and people being kicked off plans and airlines being dicks when it comes to compensating passengers makes me never want to fly again.

  6. camman68 says:

    “Their hope is that, if airlines can be reassured that they won’t face a multi-million dollar fine for going 1 minute over the limit, they won’t preemptively cancel or divert that flight.”

    The time limit is 3 hours. The fines should begin at 3 hours and 1 minutes. This should not be subject to interpretation. If they want to change the limit to 3 1/2 hours, then change it….but the law should be strictly followed!

    • TuxthePenguin says:

      I think what they’re meaning is that if you go over by 1 minute, you’re fined as if you had gone over by two hours.

      It should be a sliding scale – the longer the delay, the tougher the penalty. Then again, the airline will still just cancel the flight – its easier in the end.

      • tasselhoff76 says:

        It’s *3 hours*! I don’t care how long they went over. It’s *3 hours*! They should be fined.

        • MikeHerbst says:

          For some reason, I heard Josiah Bartlett in my head when I read this comment.

        • coren says:

          I don’t think that the person you’re responding to is suggesting otherwise.

          But say it’s 100 grand for a minute over, 2 hours over should be like, 2 million or something – it shouldn’t be the same fine the more you fuck up

    • MickeyMoo says:

      If you give them 3:30 – they’ll ask for 4 – then 4:30 – when does it end? They should be fined for canceling flights in such a way that it is no more or less advantageous than a tarmac delay and require mechanics to sign off under penalty for true mechanical delays.

      • Im Just Saying says:

        It ends with the mouse cleaning up the house…..and asking to delay the flight again….or something.

  7. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    It’s an adjustment period, and airlines will start figuring out how to readjust their schedules so that passengers don’t sit on the tarmac for 12 hours anymore.

  8. Liam Kinkaid says:

    Maybe they were afraid of Home Depot banners.

  9. anduin says:

    3 hours? Thats too long. It needs to be 1.

  10. andyg8180 says:

    What about the planes that end up getting stuck in a holding patter IN THE AIR or being diverted to other airports until they can service the planes on the ground without keeping you stuck for periods of time….

  11. jariten says:

    Having been a part of two of these the earlier commenters are taking it wrong. It’s the worst of both worlds. Not only do you get your flight canceled…you get it canceled AFTER sitting on the tarmac for two hours and forty five minutes and getting dumped back into the terminal.

    If it happens late in the afternoon or evening on a Friday trying to head home to your non-hub airport screwed completely and lose the whole Saturday after wasting two plus hours sitting in the plane in some stupid storm. Used to be you’d wait it out then most likely get to see your family for the weekend.

    I fly two of every three weeks and am not ammused by this new “protection”.

    • alSeen says:

      I don’t get why so many people do not seem to get what you are saying.

      Yes, some flights might be canceled before they even load the plane, but most are going to be canceled after sitting for 2.5 hours. At which point the plane was probably no more than 45 minutes to an hour away from leaving.

      These multi hour delays don’t happen during normal operation. It is normally the result of some kind of problem. Runway closures, weather conditions, etc.

      • SunnyLea says:

        Nor is it totally the “fault” of the airline. Only ATC can clear a plane to take off, and if you all deplane and ATC announces they’ll have a window in 5 minutes, then guess who isn’t going to be taking off in that window?

        • MrAP says:

          I’m not sure I understand. It’s not like ATC can’t estimate how long the line is, and when approximately a plane will cleared for take off. Every flight that I have ever been on that has been delayed on the tarmac, the pilot has given the estimated wait from the ATC. And take off was always pretty close to that wait time.

      • jariten says:

        They don’t get it because they are vacation flyers and it is a rare treat/inconvenience for them to fly. If you only fly only a couple times a year, a few hours of discomfort seems onerous and a wait for the next day is just that, a day. If you’re out there constantly, a wait for a day 10-15 times a year is another 2 weeks in that year that you have to miss your family. I’d much rather trade a few hours on the tarmac for that.

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      Exactly. I’ve been in many situations where despite a delay, I was able to get home within a reasonable period of time. Thanks to this new regulation, I’ll probably get to spend more time now in terminals overnight.


  12. sonneillon says:

    If airlines weren’t such jerks we wouldn’t have to do this to them.

    Act like f*cking human beings and we won’t ask our representatives to come down on you.

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      Exactly. It’s not like they operate under difficult conditions, having to coordinate incredibly complex flights in airports that are often too small (JFK with a runway closure, anyone?), extremely powerful competition, and a highly unpredictable multivariate business environment.

      They’re just all jerks. Jerky jerk jerks.

      • sonneillon says:

        I have a hard time feeling bad for a multinational billion dollar corporation that “has to be competitive.”

        What running a business is hard? Suck it up. There are other airlines who do not have to act like tools and hold people hostage on runways for hours.

        • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

          I’m not saying I feel bad for them. I don’t.

          I just don’t think it’s just because they’re “jerks.” The legacy carriers in particular operate under different conditions than the Southwests and JetBlues.

          It’s easy to say that Delta should be Southwest, but Southwest operates out of less-busy airports, doesn’t have to maintain a diverse fleet, and doesn’t have to worry about international flights.

          Do the legacy carriers suck? Yup. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to simply boil it down to them being “jerks.” They were all designed to operate under different, more regulated conditions. Their cost and revenue structures are different. It’s not accurate to compare the legacies and the discount airlines, because they operate differently.

          Flyers are an interesting bunch. We want to pay next to nothing per mile flown, but we also want food, more legroom, and every amenity possible. Something has to give at some point if profit is to happen.

          • Buckus says:

            “Legacy” is code for “obsolete.” They need to rethink their business models. Trying to adapt the old model to the new realities is just making them look bad.

            • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

              To a degree, yes. And we’re seeing that in the M&A activity that so many people are upset about.

              However, it’s not just the fault of those carriers. JFK having runways shut down isn’t exactly something AA can control. Having extremely busy airspace is not something that Delta can always do something about.

              Sometimes things will happen that these companies can’t control. I’m not sure I see the logic in punishing them for that.

              • Joe_lovz_buying says:

                It is not exactly like the JFK runway closure is a surprise. A three hour window is plenty wide if they schedule correctly. bASically more planes should wait at gates. The air traffic controllers will not allow planes on the tarmack if there is more than a 2~3 hour delay. Pretty simple fix.

                • alSeen says:

                  So many reasons why that won’t work. Here’s just two.

                  You say to keep the planes at the gate. What about all those planes coming in that need a place to park and disembark their passengers?

                  Ramp workers are not assigned to just one gate. They move around based on the scheduled time of departure. A plane can’t just up and decide to leave the gate.

                  • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

                    Exactly. So many of the “simple solutions” that I see people suggesting for airlines/airports are not really solutions at all.

                    There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people don’t see. It’s not as simple as “let’s just try harder, kay guyz?”

                • stevenpdx says:

                  You want delayed flights to stay at the gates? What about the incoming flights that need, you know, a gate to pull into?

            • alSeen says:

              Here is an idea. Why don’t you take your obvious wealth of knowledge and start your own airline.

          • sonneillon says:

            It’s quite easy to compare them. Any system of operation that is ineffective should be removed. Risks should be hedged against and changes should be made. If discount carriers are that way because they are more efficient, then the legacy carriers need to become more efficient. I have looked at Deltas 10k filings and JetBlues 10 k filings and Delta is looking pretty shabby.

  13. wonderkitty now has two dogs says:

    This is not surprising. If the airlines could have fed people, allowed them to use the bathroom, and access medications/formula for babies/etc. then this would not have happened in the first place. It isn’t so much about the wait… it is… but leaving a full plane on the tarmac for 3+ hours without food or a working toilet should have never been an option.

  14. UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

    Unintended consequences? In MY legislations?

    It’s more common than you think.

    Seriously, though: anyone could have called this one.

    • alSeen says:

      In fact, they did. When this was first discussed many people brought up the fact that this would result in more canceled flights.

  15. Beave says:

    3 hours and 1 minute is at least an hour and one minute longer than it should be. Airlines suck plain and simple. I’d rather pay a few more dollars for a ticket and get decent service than deal with the joke of a system we have.

    • NeverLetMeDown says:

      Many people say that, but they don’t follow it.

    • nbs2 says:

      More Room in Coach.
      Meals at Mealtimes.

      Yessir, people are willing to pay more for better service.

    • nbs2 says:

      More Room in Coach.
      Meals at Mealtimes.

      Yessir, people are willing to pay more for better service.

    • ARP says:

      Studies show that lots of people say that, but not enough actually do it. It also may be a paradox- people know airlines suck, so they don’t want to pay a lot for such crappy service. Or is is that because they don’t pay a lot, they get crappy service.

  16. giax says:

    How is that supposed to work in practice?

    Airports usually can’t have flights going in or out between midnight and around 6 AM (that at least at Heathrow). That leaves 6 hours for the planes to be where exactly? Even if they are parked overnight, that still counts as standing.

  17. coren says:

    Next, a fine for canceling flights – perhaps flights that have been on the tarmac for over 2 hours without a weather/emergency related reason?

  18. nbs2 says:

    this is what everybody expected would happen when the rules were announced. Airlines said they would bail on flights rather than risk fines and they are following through.

    Here is where the problem lies – what happens to folks in smaller markets when weather related cascades hit? This is going to be especially brutal in the winter or hurricane season (it it ever picks up). Folks that have one or two flights out of their airport per day will be faced with flights being canceled and having to compete for fewer seats instead of waiting through tarmac delays. With wings icing up or ripple effect weather delays, these folks will be delay a day or more in their transit because the airline didn’t want to risk a one hour delay. Refunding a bunch of $300-400 tickets is cheaper (especially for travel certs) than paying a brutal fine.

    Either way, isn’t it the passenger who is going to lose?

    I still think some sort of refund system for shorter delays followed by fines for longer delays might have been better. Cert refund 25% for each quarter hour (or fraction) over three hours. Additional cash refund of 25% for each quarter over 4 hours. 100% fare fine for over five hours, $27.5k for over six hours. Any delay of 2 or more hours will be met with complimentary airport food options every two hours (on the 2, 4, 6). If the airport or TSA is the cause of the delay in disembarkation – the responsible party will be required to reimburse the airline for costs incurred.

  19. SpamDel says:

    The problem isn’t that flights are canceled, it’s that they’re canceled after people sit on the tarmac for two-and-a-half hours only then to have the flight canceled. Quote “according to the study, the number of flights canceled after 2-3 hour tarmac waits has increased 41% while diversions have increased 26%.”

    The way the fine is handled needs to change. The fine needs to encourage airlines to get you to your destination. Once the plane starts boarding, the airline should be required to deliver you to your destination in a reasonable period of time, say the total flight time +3 hours max, or pay a proportionate fine for canceling the flight. Also, the fine should go to the passengers, and not the government.

    Adding a fine for canceling would mean airlines wouldn’t board planes unless they thought they could get you to your destination in a reasonable period of time.

    Having your flight canceled sucks, but better to be stuck in the terminal than on the tarmac.

    • SunnyLea says:

      Not everything is withing the airliner’s control. In fact, few things are. ATC and whatever being or force you believe is responsible for weather have more to do with it than anything.

  20. dreamcatcher2 says:

    I thought more cancellations was the point… No sense waiting endlessly on the tarmac, sometimes you’ve got to admit defeat and then work on a real solution, which involves running water and food.

    • alSeen says:

      Here is how that works.

      Plane sits for 2.5 hours. Flight cancels. The 100+ passengers now have to be put on other flights, most of which won’t be leaving right away resulting in even longer delays. If this is a flight going to another hub then there is a good chance that those passengers won’t get into that hub in time to catch a flight to their final destination. If it is a flight going to a small station, then there is a good chance that there may not be another flight for more than 6 hours. The flights into my town only leave Minneapolis at 9:30am and 9:30pm.

      Keep in mind that if something is keeping that plane on the ground for 2.5 hours, it is probably affecting other flights as well. There could be hundreds or thousands of passengers trying to find other flights to get on.

      Pulling back to the terminal means you loose your place in line. Your next flight could have to deal with similar waits and might wind up being canceled as well.

      Or you could just wait another 45 minutes to an hour and fly on the plane that has been waiting in line to take off. Too bad congress in their infinite wisdom did all they could to make that less likely.

      • consumerfan says:

        All those planes ahead of you that have been on the tarmac approaching 3 hours will have to leave the queue. So, if the weather clears up, you get to leave rather than sit for hours waiting for your turn. If it doesn’t clear up, you head back to the terminal and passengers then have the choice of rebooking or finding an alternative.

        With the previous system, you were stuck on the tarmac until the crew ran out of flight time.

        Now, they need to solve the problem of insufficient gates for disembarkation. Otherwise, the incoming flights will be delayed.

  21. wetrat says:

    Three hours on the tarmac is totally unacceptable— I can’t believe how many anti-consumer comments there are about how the poor airlines are suffering. I also don’t understand the idea that if a plane has been on the tarmac for 3 hours, it should be allowed to stay there because it might leave in the next few minutes.

    I have flown in several occasions where there were long delays (not necessarily in the airline’s control, but due to weather, traffic, etc.), and they delayed the flight rather than board the plane and sit on the tarmac for 3 hours. I would rather sit in the terminal with access to food, bathrooms, etc, than on the plane. Then when the situation clears up board the plane.

    These fines and penalties would never have been passed if the airlines could have practiced some reasonable customer service in the first place!

    • UCLAri: Allergy Sufferer says:

      It’s not “anti-consumer” comments about the airline suffering.

      It’s being realistic and knowing that this isn’t a simple fix where you throw some fines at the airlines and all of a sudden things get better.

      These situations are so variable, depending on the flight, the airports, the day, the other people on the runway, etc. It’s not as simple as screaming, “DO BETTER!” and then expecting this to all improve.

      And saying that this is a complex situation isn’t “anti-consumer.” Attempting to look at this from all angles doesn’t mean I’m giving AA a foot massage, for goodness sake.

  22. Sean says:

    The root causes of delays is that, in the quest for “yield management”, airline statisticians have eradicated much buffer or redundancy in resources for flights. If the weather is perfect and there are no mechanical/technical disruptions, then the system could work. However, weather is predictably poor in winter and resource buffers are very thin during holiday travel. Thus, it is entirely predictable that there would be delays since, currently, airlines can neither changing the mix of aircraft or massively reroute by season.

    Since the airlines don’t have the ability to mix and match equipment and other resources by season, we have this chaos every year. Short of making airfares much higher to enable “redundancy”, I think that there are two strategies to deal with this:

    1. Enable all airlines to “pool” their transport capacity during peak travel/bad weather; the incentive would be that it would cost them more to hold back passengers than lose revenue to competitors.

    2. Come to a resource seasonal reallocation arrangement with foreign airlines that have peak travel on a different calendar to North America. Summer holidays in the southern hemisphere takes place from January to March. Short of merging with LAN or Argentinian airlines, a strategic agreement could be made for equipment and staff to be diverted between the north and south American markets according to time of year.

    3. Allow slots to be “rented” by season and/or time of day. The current static system encourages airlines to “own” landing slots. There should be a system that dynamically allows slots to be reallocated by season, and one that allows airports to retract slot allocation if the airlines are not making full use of them.

    4. Stagger holidays. The European do this already. Schools have staggered summer holidays; thus there are lower peaks in travel.

  23. SabreDC says:

    …Which is exactly what the airlines said they were going to do if the tarmac rules passed. LaHood and the DOT took the airlines’ warnings with a grain of salt.

  24. smo0 says:

    The increase in flights is what’s causing this to happen in the first place.

    Less flights, less delays.

  25. JonBoy470 says:

    Airline operations are a carefully choreographed dance amongst all the planes in the air and on the ground. Air traffic control and airport resources are being used at (or beyond) their design capacity. It’s not surprising that all it takes is one small mechanical failure or weather incident to throw a monkey-wrench in the whole works. The one little problem ripples through the system because the whole works is built like a house of cards.

    Airlines don’t want to de-plane the passengers because doing so takes time, both to return the plane to a gate, and to re-board them when the flight ultimately does depart. With the ubiquity of jet-ways in this day and age, motorized stair-trucks, let alone planes equipped with built-in air-stairs are a rarity. Thus the only option to de-plane is to return to a gate. If all the airline’s gates are scheduled to handle other flights (see airport capacity above), then de-planing your flight means bumping another flight from its time/gate slot. Given modern airline operations revolve around the plane being on the ground for as short a time as possible, they’ve just created another delay (See “house of cards”, above).

    $27.5K a head equates to several million dollars for a fully loaded airliner. Hate to say it, but canceling the flight at that point is making lemons out of lemonade. Just makes good business-sense.

  26. crashfrog says:

    If one minute over the line is ok, why not 5? If 5 is ok why not 30?

    If a half-hour over the line is ok, why not a whole hour? And if an hour is ok, why not two hours? Or four?

    What’s the point of even having the deadline and the fine, then?

  27. StarVapor says:

    The airlines will always want one minute more that they deserve.

  28. Big Mama Pain says:

    Oh come on, like you couldn’t see this coming a mile away?! It’s like the consumer protection laws; they tried to keep credit card companies from porking us with crazy interest rates, so they just jacked up all the fees and outright ditched customers who weren’t making them any money.

  29. John B says:

    Does this REALLY surprise anyone?

  30. wonderkitty now has two dogs says:

    Seriously, if people had been given food and a toilet the first dozen insane delays, this wouldn’t be an issue! You can’t keep people on a plane for 8 hours without the above (nevermind access to medication and supplies for babies) AND not expect a serious backlash.

    If the airlines had just TREATED PEOPLE LIKE HUMANS, this would’ve never happened.

  31. areaman says:

    I’ll take my chances at being stuck at an airport vs being locked up in a plane.

    Anyone remember what happened to that blind person who asked for water on a US Airway flight in Philly?

    If he asked for water at the airport he would not have been choked and arrested.

  32. brianary says:

    Are headlines with question marks fact-free speculation too lazy to answer the question?