|by Jason Steele|
One of the hot button issues in travel these days is what is often referred to as a “Tarmac Delay”. Of course, Tarmac is a specific type of asphalt, and just about every airport uses a reinforced concrete surface. Just by pointing out this detail, I am letting you know that I am putting on my pilot’s hat in looking at this problem.
This Pilot’s Perspective
As a pilot we are trained to handle all manner of unlikely contingencies. In fact, all airlines have an operating handbook that pilots must have on hand during commercial operations. These handbooks specify in minute detail the proper procedure for eventualities so obscure and unlikely, that any given pilot has only a minute chance of encountering them in their entire career. What struck me most about all of the notable “tarmac strandings” in the last decade or so was that recounts of the event clearly indicated that no one had any kind of procedure for dealing with it. Basically, the pilot’s complained to the airport and their company, and both replied to the effect of: there is nothing we can do at this time, we are working on it. After the event, the airline in question would pretend to have fixed the problem, yet the entire process would repeat on the same or a different carrier the next time there was irregular operations.
Enter The Three Hour Rule
Eventually, things got so bad that the government was forced to intervene. A three hour rule was created by the Department of Transportation (DOT) that used a blunt instrument, heavy fines, in order to ensure that passengers were never detained on a plane for more than three hours. The clock starts ticking when the doors close, but exceptions are made when the plane cannot return to the gate for safety reasons.
What Has Happened Since
Strandings have virtually disappeared, especially the terrible ones that went on all day or all night. On the other hand, foreign carriers, which are exempt from the rule have continued to see strandings during the recent snowstorms in the northeast. Another effect has been that airlines are staying at the gate as long as possible when they cannot take off due to traffic, weather, or mechanical issues. This solution is imperfect, as many airports are too short on gate space to permit lengthy stays. Nevertheless, I have had several recent occasions where I or an acquaintance has been on an airplane that remained at the gate for some time during a delay. It is always comforting to know that you can leave the plane easily if you need to. There are all sorts of reasons you might do this. Perhaps you have already been delayed enough that you will miss your connection. Maybe you have booked a new ticket to your destination during your delay. Perhaps you will even miss the event you are to attend, making it a “trip in vain”.
The Rule Is Not Perfect
In my recent web radio interview with Brett Snyder, AKA The Cranky Flier, he made several excellent points about the drawbacks of this rule as implemented. He contents that flight cancellations have increased. This may be true, although many dispute whether or not the statistics show this definitively. Even if it could be proven that has been some uptick in cancellations directly attributable to the three hour rule, I am not ready to call that a bad thing. I personally, would rather be in the terminal after my flight was canceled, than be stuck in a plane for hours on end. In the terminal I have access to food, water, and medical care. I might even find another flight to my destination or one nearby. I can also leave the terminal and go home, go to a hotel, or find alternate ground transportation to my destination. I have no options if I am stuck in a plane. Brett empathizes more with the travelers that are determined to make it to their destination on their original flight, regardless of the delay. On that subject we agreed to disagree, but we found plenty of common ground in our concerns that the rule is necessary, but could use more tweaking.
Brett points out that the DOT has given very little guidance about this rule and that the potential fines are very steep. I agree that the rule could have been designed and implemented better. I also feel that the airports need to be held liable to some degree as well. Too often, airlines and pilots merely claim that the airport doesn’t have any open gates, and then they all give up. In reality, the airport should be able to find an open gate, allocate the next open gate, or at the very least provide an air-stair. To do otherwise is inexcusable.
Either way, I will always feel that the creation of the rule has been a victory for passengers as well as the realization that the airlines have failed. Clearly, airlines and airports are finally getting around to creating standard procedures to deal with these types of irregular operations. They only have themselves to blame for the fact that it took government intervention for them to do so.