Wednesday, March 09, 2011

'Tarmac Rule' a Failure? Nonsense! Do the Math!

Today's Prayer:
O Merciful God, please spare us from Newspaper Editorial Writers who think they know something about air travel when the only time they get on an airplane is once a year to take a very cheap flight from Atlantic City to Florida on Spirit Airlines, which is not to be confused, God help us, with Thy Holy Spirit.

Here we have an editorial in the hometown newspaper of the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport informing us that the so-called tarmac rule "has backfired."

The tarmac rule, put in place last spring by the Transportation Department, provides fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for an airline that strands passengers on tarmacs, without extremely good reason, for more than three hours.

Since the rule went into effect, tarmac strandings -- and those awful stories of people sitting for eight and nine hours on packed, idled planes with toilets overflowing -- have almost disappeared.

Between May of last year (the first full month that the rule was in effect), and January of this year, there were 16 tarmac strandings on domestic airlines, the U.S. Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) says. There was only one this January.

That compares with 604 tarmac strandings between May of 2009 and January 2010, the BTS says.

OK, but what about the airlines' threats of massive preemptive cancellations? Granted, when the airlines first started wailing about the imminent rule last year, I bought into the idea that there would be huge numbers of preemptive cancellations at the slightest sign of bad weather arriving. What airline wants to pay that kind of a fine?

And airlines did, in fact, cancel tens of thousands of flights during extremely bad weather this winter.

Was the tarmac rule the main or even a major reason? I do not see evidence that it had a major effect on cancellations. In fact, it appears to me that airlines, screaming all the way, have actually cleaned up their act -- and the disappearance of tarmac strandings is awfully persuasive evidence of that.

Were cancellations excessive this winter, compared with last? Yes, airlines did cancel a large number of flights starting in November and continuing through January, as exceptionally bad winter weather raked much of the country east of the Continental Divide. But the numbers don't even begin to support a conclusion that the tarmac rule has "backfired."

Now, I routinely talk to pilots, and every one of them I have spoken with this winter expressed amazement at the extent of bad weather since Thanksgiving. Pilots are not shy about criticizing their employers. But every one who had a flight canceled agreed that safety-caution and/or plain common sense was why. "In one case, the option was a possible two-hour wait for de-icing, which means at least three hours really, and then that was still taking a chance on getting out before the weather turned worse -- which it did," one pilot told me.

Au contraire mon frere, the newspaper quoted above announces. "Newspaper studies, including one by the Star-Ledger, reveal a pattern: Even after allowing for bad weather, cancellations are up, way up. At Newark Liberty International Airport, more than 900 flights a month are being scratched."

That wobbly verb-tense, "are being," would seem to indicate, during this very severe winter. Which has now come to an end. And, uh, exactly how many flights a month does the hilariously named Newark Liberty International Airport have? Well, it shows right here on that Newark has 1,226 scheduled flights for today alone. That puts the total in the 35,000-flights-a-month range for January, the slowest travel month of the year.

In all of 2009, the Newark airport had a total of 411,607 flights, according to Airports Council International North America. During the full year in 2010, airports in the U.S. handled 9.5 million total flights, the BTS says.

In all U.S. airports, 3.87 percent of flights were canceled in January of 2011, according to the BTS. In January 2010, before the tarmac rule took effect, and at a time when national weather was a lot better than it was this January, a total of 2.46 percent of flights were canceled, the BTS says. Factor in this January's horrible weather and that difference is negligible.

The fact is, airlines (faced with the prospect of those huge fines) have figured out ways to get idled planes back to a gate while the tarmac-rule clock is ticking. Preemptive cancellations are a small factor, but so far, given the weather this winter, there is no indication, none, that a significant number of flights were canceled that otherwise would have taken off.

Back when I was a city editor at a big newspaper, I used to importune reporters: "Do the math and use your common sense."

The advice stands.


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