New rules limiting tarmac delays could lead to more cancellations

By Michael Fabey

Passengers who felt put out last month when more than a quarter of all U.S. flights were canceled because of winter storms in the Midwest and along the Eastern Seaboard will soon discover that it was only a preview of coming annoyances.

As a result of new federal rules limiting tarmac delays, airline officials and analysts predicted that in coming months, airlines are certain to cancel an increasing number of flights for bad weather or for a host of other reasons, rather than face heavy new federal fines for holding passengers too long on a tarmac.

The new Transportation Department regulations, which take effect April 29, subject U.S. airlines to fines of up to $27,500 per passenger in instances where the airlines fail to allow passengers to deplane after three hours on the tarmac or fail to provide those aboard with food, drink and other comforts.

"For us, that could be as much as $4.4 million for one flight," said American spokesman Tim Smith. "No one’s going to play with that. There will be many more cancellations as a result. Everyone is gearing up for this."

Gearing up includes factoring threats of fines into the airlines’ analysis of when to cancel flights and when to divert aircraft or take other steps to deal with issues that could affect their networks.

None of the airlines suggested that the threats of fines would have had any bearing whatsoever on their decisions last month to cancel, often preemptively, thousands of flights to cope with the blizzard-like conditions that closed or crippled airports in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

The airlines said that about three days before the blizzards hit, they learned from their own meteorologists and operations staff how disruptive the storms were likely to be, and they canceled flights accordingly.

"We knew it was going to be bad," Delta spokesman Anthony Blade said.

Where passengers are likely to see an immediate impact is in "less-predictive weather," Smith said. "That’s where you get disruptive delays."

For example, he said, sudden summer thunderstorms will force airlines to consider the new tarmac-delay rules when deciding whether to cancel, divert or alter flights.

To understand just how concerns about tarmac delays could shape airlines’ decisions over flights, it’s important to understand how the process works now.

At Southwest, for example, all decisions emanate from the airline’s Operations Coordination Center in Dallas. There, meteorologists, schedule planners and others review weather data and an airline network profile for some 3,200 daily flights.

For major snowstorms like those in mid-February, center personnel would be engaged early on with one major question, said center director Steve West: "We look at 36 hours out, and we ask: Are we going to have operations disrupted?"

But the center’s staff, like their equivalents at other airlines’ operation posts around the country, are considering more than just the weather. They are also looking at which airports are being affected, what kind of weather-coping equipment those airports have, how much gate support the carriers can expect, what the overall network impact will be and a host of other considerations.

"We have to think about whether there will be enough [Transportation Security Administration] personnel there," West said. "And can we get people in and out of the airport without getting them stuck there?"

The airlines check the reliability of airport feeder transportation, such as trains, as well as road conditions. Then they check to see if their own employees will have trouble getting to the airport and, once there, what kinds of equipment challenges they will face.

"Maybe they can keep the runways open, but they don’t have enough de-icing equipment," Delta’s Black said. "It’s the airport, the load factors, the time of year. It’s the weather event: Is it sleeting, snowing, freezing rain?"

Smith said, "You have to worry about what hour of the day it is, or when it will get below freezing."

Airlines said they hold conference calls with their operations centers and airport bases early and often, sometimes hourly, to get the best picture of what’s happening and what’s likely to change.

The cancellations begin when airlines believe it’s clear that they can no longer safely operate flights, carrier officials said. And, they added, the airlines are careful about which flights to drop.

"You try to pick flights with fewer people onboard," Smith said. "You look for flights with high frequencies, so you still can accommodate passengers with remaining service."

And the earlier the airlines can make that decision, the better, which is why what the airlines call "pre-cancellations" have become more common in recent years.

Airline officials said they try to make the decision at least 24 hours in advance to give passengers time to change their plans. Often the airlines will offer suggestions themselves, notifying passengers via text message, email or whatever method is preferred by the customer.

Canceling flights in the mid-February storms was a no-brainer for most airlines, because after two back-to-back blizzards, the airports were no longer equipped to handle aircraft.

Some airlines still operated. El Al, for example, was running transatlantic flights out of Newark at the height of the storm.

"It didn’t prevent us from flying punctually," said Offer Gat, airline vice president for North and Central America. "Most of the other airlines and most of the aircraft, especially domestically, are not equipped to operate in such weather." Gat said El Al’s 777s handle such weather well.

Gat said the airline tries to decide hours before a flight whether to cancel. "The worst-case scenario is when boarding starts. We will not board before a decision is made."

That’s the kind of time frame that airlines might have in deciding whether to cancel for weather or other events that they can’t see coming days in advance. And it’s in those instances that the new tarmac-delay rules are expected to play a bigger part in airlines’ cancellation decisions.

When airlines have less time to analyze a situation, they’re likely to adopt more rigid policies and procedures with a new tarmac-delay clock ticking, leading to more pre-emptive cancellations, carrier officials said.

"It’s taking all of the decisions out of the hands of those on the scene," Smith said.

As for what passengers can anticipate, West said that there could be more cancellations. "There could be more aircraft returning to the gate and more re-evaluations."

Once the plane returns to the gate, though, it loses its place in the takeoff line, which pilots loathe.

"If you know you’re going to be delayed three hours or more, you just cancel," said former commercial pilot Vaughn Cordle, now an analyst for the consultancy AirlineForecasts. "You lose some revenue, but it’s offset a little by less cost. And it cuts out the risk of a potentially pricey fine."

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