Robert Silk
Robert Silk

On Sept. 2, the DOT launched a webpage housing its new Airline Customer Service Dashboard, which compares the services that airlines have committed in writing to providing when they are to blame for flight cancellations or significant delays.

It's a handy tool. But it would be even handier if the DOT's statistical definitions didn't offer a major loophole that airlines can use to avoid responsibility for a significant portion of their late operations. 

First, though, the good news. Even before the dashboard launched, the mere knowledge that it was coming led airlines to make new commitments within their customer service plans related to rebookings as well as to the provision of hotel accommodations, food vouchers and hotel transportation in cases of cancellations and delays.

For example, prior to the DOT's mid-August announcement about the coming dashboard, only Southwest among the 10 largest U.S. airlines was committing in writing to rebooking passengers at no cost within its own network. Now, each of the 10 carriers except Allegiant are making that commitment. 

Though airlines were already providing that service in many cases, putting commitments in writing makes them legally enforceable. And because the dashboard provides easy comparative charts for consumers to reference as well as links to airline customer service plans, it should arm consumers who are aware of the tool with the knowledge to hold carriers to those commitments.

Still, it's important to understand the limitations of airlines' commitments, which translate directly to limitations in the usefulness of the dashboard. The commitments, as laid out in the dashboard charts, apply only to "controllable" delays and cancellations. That means delays caused by an airline itself, such as an aircraft maintenance issue or a crew shortage.

That's sensible. Airlines shouldn't be responsible for delays caused by weather or an air traffic control snafu, for example.

But the DOT also counts delays caused by late-arriving aircraft as "uncontrollable" and therefore not the responsibility of the airline.

Sometimes that's reasonable; for example, when the plane that's going to take me from Detroit to Pittsburgh arrives late into Detroit due to a snowstorm in its departure city. But in many cases, that plane that arrives late to Detroit does so because of a reason, like a crew shortage, that is the air carrier's fault. In those situations, shouldn't airlines be on the hook for the ensuing flight that runs late? 

According to DOT data from June, 23.4% of domestic flights scheduled by the 10 largest U.S. airlines operated but arrived at least 15 minutes late or were diverted. Of those, 38.2% were controllable delays, while 35.1% were due to late-arriving aircraft. Of the remaining delays, 21.6% were related to the National Aviation System, such as air traffic control problems or heavy air traffic, while weather, security concerns and diversions accounted for the other 5%.

It's not possible from the data to know what portion of those delays that airlines reported as attributable to late-arriving aircraft were actually a cascading effect from a carrier's own operational problem earlier that day. But when one considers that well over half of the delays in June that weren't attributed to late-arriving aircraft fell under the controllable category, it's reasonable to guess the number is substantial.

The DOT is striving these days to present itself as an engaged watchdog of airlines' consumer practices. The new dashboard is a good step. But in order to maximize the dashboard's utility, the department should adjust its definition of "controllable delay" to include all delays that were indeed controllable. 

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