A Southwest airplane taxies at Los Angeles International Airport.
A Southwest airplane taxies at Los Angeles International Airport. - 
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Kai Ryssdal: Next time you find yourself stuck in an airplane out on the tarmac for hours at a time, go ahead and count your blessings. Seriously, I mean that. Turns out penalties meant to help travelers may actually be hurting them.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler has more.

Jeff Tyler: Passengers aren't being stranded inside idle airplanes as often. That's because the government started penalizing airlines when a plane stays on the tarmac for more than three hours. Fines run $27,000 per passenger.

Joshua Marks: Because there are punitive fines at hundreds of times the amount of revenue that's on-board the airplane, what we're seeing is that airlines are very risk averse. They're bringing those flights back to the gate long before three hours.

That's Joshua Marks of Marks Aviation and one of the authors of a new study.

Marks: What we've seen is that, for every flight where you save a tarmac delay, four flights are getting cancelled.

Marks estimates that around 200,000 passengers will have flights canceled in the next year. And those passengers will wind-up being delayed for an average of 17 hours.

But some say these estimates are premature. Henry Harteveldt is an airline analyst with Forrester Research.

Henry Harteveldt: What I'm concerned about is, the study's trying to write the end of the show when the first act isn't even finished yet.

With only one month's worth of data, he says the study may over-estimate the problem. But if high cancellations persist after six months, Harteveldt thinks the three-hour tarmac rule should be reconsidered.

Harteveldt: This was done to protect the traveler. But if it ends up penalizing travelers and inconveniencing people, than this three-hour limit ends up being the wrong kind of rule to have.

Harteveldt says the airlines, the FAA and airport executives should sit down in a few months to iron-out the kinks. Otherwise, the consumer protections meant to streamline the process may continue to cause delays.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

Follow Jeff Tyler at @JeffMarketplace