Fun With Thanksgiving Air Travel

It did not take long Monday for the news to spread that an American Airlines branch had been slapped with nearly a million dollars in punitive fines for leaving 608 passengers stranded on the tarmac last year. In fact, the general sentiment goes roughly like, Take that suckers. Serves you right, you malicious bastards! — which, if you’ve ever experienced the impotent rage that comes from being left within eyeshot of the airport terminal for any significant length of time, is completely understandable if not shared outright. (Consider the recent seven-hour saga at Hartford’s airport.) And it only took the Department of Transportation one-and-one-half years to enforce their spring 2010 limit on tarmac wait time.

But, hot on the heels of this schadenfreude have come the dire warnings that this move — which comes on the eve of literally the single busiest travel day of the year — is at heart a showy non-solution destined to make things worse, or at least, neutral.

From the New York Times:

The airlines had fought the [tarmac delay limit] rule, arguing that it would lead to more canceled flights and seriously complicate their efforts to operate in bad weather. One executive, Jeffrey A. Smisek, then the head of Continental Airlines, said the rule was “stupid” and would make things worse for passengers. Airlines now claim they are more likely to cancel a flight than risk a fine.

That assertion was backed up by a report in September by the Government Accountability Office, which found that flights were three times more likely to be canceled if they stayed on the tarmac two to three hours.

“As our analysis has shown, the rule appears to be associated with an increased number of cancellations for thousands of additional passengers — far more than D.O.T. initially predicted — including some who might not have experienced a tarmac delay,” the government agency said in its report.

Despite Continental guy’s wildly PR-unfriendly description of the rule, the numbers bear it out. Your average tarmac delay has, with exceptions, dropped beautifully, but cancellations have increased overall. At Boston Logan, for instance, cancellation flights were at 2.61 percent, 2.70 percent, and 3.80 percent in 2009, 2010, and — in the first full year following the 3-hour tarmac rule — 2011 (Newark is even worse, with rates that go from 2.49-3.25 percent to 4.70 percent). Not a huge jump, but still the highest in six years. And that’s when they weren’t even enforcing it.

That air travel’s culture desperately needs to be changed is unquestionable. The treat-the-customer-like-cattle complaint has legs for a reason — probably the same reason that keeps me motivated to do what I can to avoid flying. But if this is one edge of an attempt to impose order of some sort in favor of the passenger, then there has to be another side, or the concept (still) won’t work, especially now that the punishment has finally been meted out and will doubtless be again. Airlines will be more on-edge than ever this Thanksgiving travel season, and a good guess is that at least a few will develop a hair-trigger cancel reflex for a while.

On the bright side, of course, a cancelled flight does mean that delayed travelers will, at least, have access to the mostly functioning bathrooms of the airport proper, plus as much (outrageously expensive) water and trail mix as their wallets allow, which they don’t get in a stranded plane. It’s sort of a win. Kind of.

Have you considered walking this Thanksgiving?