The modern aviation system is a marvel of technology and human enterprise. The idea that one can get into an aluminum cylinder powered by controlled explosions and soar through the skies, landing a few hours later in foreign lands, based on aerodynamic principles, still boggles the mind. To think that it can cost only a few hundred dollars and millions of people do it every day, is even more amazing.
Yet, following the Christmas 2010 weekend storm in the Northeast, the media was out doing what they do, trying to find someone to blame. The fact that this was a massive storm and the fact that airlines seem to handle this well, did not seem to matter. Due to the tarmac delay rules, introduced in April 2010, no passenger on any US airline was forced to wait on the runways – the few cases where this occurred all involved foreign carriers.
The tarmac delay rule specified massive fine ($27,500 per passenger delayed) for tarmac delays over three hours. And it worked. Instead of risking such fines, which can easily amount to millions of dollars per airplane, US airlines simply canceled flights even before the storm hit. More than 5,000 flights were canceled just in the New York area by airlines operating in LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark airports. Thousands more flights were canceled throughout the country. Naturally, some of the cancelations were due to operational considerations – deciding where it would be best to have planes and crews during the storm - but the fact that the only airplanes involved in long tarmac delays were foreign, speaks for itself. US carriers do not have different operational considerations from British Air, Air France, or Cathay Pacific, yet those carriers decided to fly when US carriers decide to cancel flights preemptively. This does not mean that the tarmac delay policy is beneficial. It only means that it works; US airlines are rational decision makers and in the face of potential massive fines, decided not to take the risk.
The two interesting open questions are 1) does the tarmac delay rule make sense? And 2) given that it is in effect, how can airlines ease the customer burdens?