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Friday, July 9, 2010

Long Delays on Tarmac Fall as Steep Fines Hit Airlines

USA Today

Airlines are cutting down on lengthy tarmac delays in the face of steep fines.

The number of planes stuck on airport tarmacs for more than three hours fell to five in May. That's the second-lowest monthly total since the federal government began monitoring them in the current fashion in October 2008, the Transportation Department said Thursday.

In May of last year, 34 flights were delayed more than three hours, data from the department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics show.

This May was the first full month that U.S. airlines operated under a new federal rule that says airlines must let passengers off planes if they've been stuck for three hours on the tarmac or face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.

"The rule is a resounding success," says Kate Hanni, director of FlyersRights.org, which pushed for the new rule. "I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so."

Four of the five delays in May were United Airlines flights to Denver on May 26 that were diverted to Colorado Springs because of weather. Delta Air Lines (DAL) had the other delay. The department hasn't fined either airline yet because it's investigating the delays.

The Air Transport Association, which represents many of the nation's big airlines, says the low number of delays in May reflects how airlines have worked to prevent them and how the weather has been good — more than the possibility of fines.

"The number of lengthy tarmac delays has been in decline over a year," says association spokesman David Castelveter.

Lengthy delays have been declining rapidly in recent months leading up to the rule. In April, when the rule took effect, only four delays were reported. There were 25 in March. In comparison, there were 268 in June 2009.

Castelveter says airlines and airports have taken new steps to curb delays in recent months. They've upped the "decision-making process" to higher-ranking executives during delays, he says.

Earlier this month, New York JFK extended its trial of a system that, to prevent planes from stacking up, limits the number of aircraft that can line up on the taxiway for departure.

Despite warnings that airlines would cancel flights rather than risk fines for lengthy delays, the department reported that the cancellation rate this May was 1.2% of all flights. That was just slightly higher than the 0.9% reported in May 2009.

The department also reported that 79.9% of domestic flights operated by 18 largest U.S. carriers arrived on time in May, or within 15 minutes of schedule. That's lower than the 80.5% in May 2009 and April 2010's 85.3%.

The carriers also reported a mishandled baggage rate of 3.29 reports per 1,000 passengers in May, an improvement over May 2009's rate of 3.65, but down from April 2010's 2.89.