'It depends'

Let us be the first to welcome the month of March, the month of the spring equinox, the beginning of the end of winter.

By this time of year, the worst winter storms are usually behind us, along with the havoc they create for air travel. And havoc we have had.

When the data come in for January and February, they may show that we have had a record season for weather-related flight cancellations and delays.

We may also get another debate about the Department of Transportation's (DOT) tarmac delay rule, and whether it has given airlines a perverse incentive to make wholesale pre-emptive cancellations when storms approach.

We know there are intrepid travelers out there who don't mind taking the risk that a trip to the airport will involve a waiting time of three or more hours before they get airborne.

And there are statisticians who say that the airlines are making more people worse off when they cancel flights to avoid the risk of long delays.

In its most recent attempt to settle the question, the DOT commissioned a firm called Econometrica to look at all the previous studies and commentaries about how the tarmac delay rule has affected air travel.

The firm's report, issued in January, was a disappointment. It said the answer depends on the data used and the methodology applied. It said the rule has had some beneficial effects and some adverse effects, but it stopped short of saying the overall impact on consumer welfare was good or bad.

That may be as good as it gets: It comes down to whether a particular traveler would rather risk a delay (or worse), or stay home and fly another day.

On balance, we continue to believe the DOT made the right call, and though we can't cite Econometrica to back up our claim, it doesn't appear that anybody else can, either.
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