Who’s to blame for tarmac delays?

Jennifer Collins Nov 23, 2011

Jeremy Hobson: Well AAA says 42.5 million Americans will be travelling to their Thanksgiving destinations, by car, plane, or maybe plane.

But as it turns out airline travelers are less likely this year to be stranded on the tarmac, as Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins reports.

Jennifer Collins: You might have heard this story: A pilot begs to get his passengers to a gate; they’ve been stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours.

Pilot: I have a paraplegic on board that needs to come off. I have a diabetic on board that’s got an issue. It’s a list of things. I’ve just got to get some help.

That happened in October at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. The incident got a lot of media attention, but endless tarmac delays have actually become pretty rare. That’s because of steep new penalties for delays over three hours.

Hunter Keay is an airline analyst with the firm Wolfe Trahan. He says says airlines have pushed the wait back to the terminal, stranding travelers inside instead.

Hunter Keay: Tarmac delays are down because airlines are, they’re going to just taxi back and cancel the flight as opposed to facing hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines for large planes.

Last week, the Department of Transportation said it slapped American Eagle with a $900,000 fine for 15 delayed flights on a single day in May.

Economics professor Jan Brueckner of the University of California, Irvine, says the fines are directed only at airlines but they may not be the only ones at fault.

Jan Brueckner: It’s not just the pilots; there may be some airport institutions that play a role in this as well.

Kate Hanni: Airports said that they would never be part of the problem. Now we’ve seen a couple of big events where they have been.

Kate Hanni is the executive director of the consumer group FlyersRights. The Transportation Department says that there’s no agency that oversees airports when it comes to consumer issues like tarmac delays. Hanni’s pushing for every U.S. airport to have a plan for when bad weather or mechanical problems leave passengers stranded.

Hanni: The biggest problem is that there’s no communication, collaboration or cooperation.

She says there’s nothing like a fine to get agencies talking.

I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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