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Getting off the tarmac

A rule requiring airlines to unload waiting passengers after three hours could cause more delays. It makes more sense for carriers and the government to work together on a more flexible system.

December 22, 2009

A federal order requiring airlines to unload passengers after precisely three hours on the tarmac won't bring significant relief to most waiting passengers. Despite the horror stories of people cramped in planes for six hours or more -- and those do happen -- tarmac waits of more than three hours occur only about three times per day, on average, a barely noticeable blip among the more than 28,000 daily commercial flights in this country.

The new rule, announced Monday by the U.S. Department of Transportation and scheduled to take effect in 120 days, is sure to end the airlines' practice of forcing passengers, including babies and the elderly, to stew, sometimes overnight, in crowded conditions without food or other basic comforts while the plane sits on the ground. As rare as those situations are, they also are unpardonable.

But a rigid three-hour limit could do more to delay passengers than speed them on their way. If at the three-hour point, the plane is only half an hour or so from takeoff, it would take far longer to deplane and then reload passengers than to wait a little longer. The plane would also lose its place in the takeoff lineup. If some passengers decide to book another flight, delays for everyone else would be drastically increased while the airline unloaded the baggage compartment, ferreted out the required luggage and then reloaded.

The Transportation Department is looking to do more than give passengers a chance to walk around and buy a meal. Fines for longer tarmac waits give airlines a financial incentive not to over-schedule flights, a practice that leads to more frequent delays. But there are other major causes for late flights, such as limited airport capacity and an outmoded air traffic control system. Tarmac-wait rules are a simple, popular way to create the illusion that a more complex, expensive problem is being addressed.

Other regulations announced Monday will do more to help consumers than the tarmac rule: required posting of delays and cancellations on airline websites; prohibitions against scheduling chronically delayed flights; and requirements for food, water and adequate bathrooms to be provided for stranded passengers.

But when it comes to deciding when those planes must return to the terminal, the federal government would be better off working with airlines on a more flexible system that aims at getting passengers off the ground as quickly and comfortably as possible.

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