Larry Wolf has been looking out the cockpit window for a long time, and he doesn’t care much for what he has seen this year as airline cancellations pile up in an air-travel system so tight that it often takes days for a traveler to reschedule a flight that has been scrubbed.
“I understand that I work for a company, but I really think personally in terms of serving the passengers first,” said Wolf, a captain with a major airline who has flown commercially for 27 years. “My beef with this whole process is that it has really done the passenger a huge disservice.”
Wolf contacted me the other day to discuss views shared by most pilots, and the airline industry in general, that a 2010 federal law setting big fines for flights that sit on tarmacs for more than three hours created unintended consequences. The best proof, he said, is that more than 110,000 flights have been canceled during bad weather since mid-December, and a good number of cancellations were because the airlines feared fines, he said.
“Do the math,” he said. “Take those 110,000 flights with an average of about 100 people on each, and you’ve got 11 million people who didn’t get where they wanted to go on a given day, and in a lot of cases were told that they couldn’t be rebooked on a flight for a couple of days.”
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On Sunday and as of noon Monday, airlines had canceled about 4,900 more flights during bad weather on the East Coast. MasFlight estimated that the total cost to passengers, airlines and airports of the weather disruptions to air service in the last three months was $5.8 billion.
Wolf added: “The law was intended to make the passenger experience better. Has it? To me, every person who gets on my airplane has somewhere important to go. There are some people, some business travelers, who get on a plane at 9 o’clock that’s supposed to land at 11 o’clock, and they have a 12 o’clock meeting, so if the flight is late, they may as well not go. But most people aren’t cutting it that close. They’ve got something tomorrow — got interviews, meetings, whatever. And they’re better off getting there three hours late than not getting there at all.”
No one claims that airlines distinguish themselves in passenger service during bad weather, and that was especially true in the worst years of the tarmac strandings. In late 2006 through 2009, thousands of planes sat idle, away from the gate but unable to take off, for three, five, even 12 hours. Conditions often were intolerable as toilets overflowed, cabin air grew fouled, babies screamed, and passengers became ill and frantic.
In last week’s column, I pointed out that this problem — which had affected 1,500 flights a year in 2007 and 2008 — virtually vanished after the Transportation Department in mid-2010 set fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for domestic flights stranded for more than three hours (and later expanded that to cover international flights stranded for more than four hours). The impetus had been a campaign by Flyersrights.org, a group that pressured the federal government to address the strandings — while airlines insisted that they would pre-emptively cancel a lot more flights if they faced the risk of fines for long tarmac delays.
“The purpose of the three-hour rule is simple — to put more power into the passengers’ hands, as opposed to the airlines’,” said Paul Hudson, president of Flyersrights.org. Rather than being stuck for long hours in terrible conditions, “you go back to the gate,” he said. “You can abandon your trip and get a refund. You can make other travel arrangements.”
Passengers’ difficulties in rebooking flights after a cancellation are caused by airline cost-cutting that led to insufficient reserves in crews and equipment, he added.
Certainly, airlines have reduced flights and overall capacity while cutting employment. And as most airplanes have been flying nearly full for years, passengers from canceled flights rebook into a system with little slack. Federal rules requiring more rest time for pilots contribute to scheduling problems.
What’s more, this winter’s weather has been notably severe — indicating that a good number of the cancellations since mid-December had less to do with the three-hour rule than with conditions so bad an airplane was not going to take off no matter how long it might wait on the tarmac.
Actually, the federal government has been accepting settlement of fines at well under the $27,500 per passenger rate, said Joshua Marks, chief executive of masFlight, a consulting firm.
“Airlines also began to learn how to deal with the rule, and implemented airport monitoring systems and other infrastructure and technology that allowed them to really maximize the flight completions within the rule,” he said. “That’s not to say that the rule isn’t still causing cancellations, but the airlines have gotten better at managing their networks around the three- and four-hour limits.”
There is not much anyone can do about weather as bad as we’ve seen this winter. United Airlines said in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Thursday that it canceled more than 22,500 flights in January and February — nearly four times as many as in the same period last year.
Wolf said airports could step up more effectively to make things better when an airplane is stuck away from the gate.
“My biggest suggestion would be setting a process at the airport that allows service vehicles to access the aircraft on taxiways in those conditions,” he said. “It would be nice if a lav-service truck could be escorted out to the runways, or along the taxiways, to empty the lavs. Or a catering truck, to deliver water and snacks.”