(Tim Sloan / AFP)
The days of being stuck for hours on a plane on an airport’s tarmac appear to be over.
Between January and June, only four planes carrying passengers on flights within the United States sat for longer than three hours, the Transportation Department reported Thursday.
That compares with 35 tarmac delays for domestic flights during the same period last year, which was the first full year that a new government rule preventing long tarmac delays took effect.
The government imposed limits on delays in April 2010 after a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on planes for more than 10 hours. In the first six months of 2009, for instance, there were 586 tarmac delays of more than three hours.
The rule on domestic flights requires airlines to let passengers off a plane if they have been waiting on a tarmac for more than three hours. Exceptions are made only if the delay is for safety, security or air traffic control-related reasons.
Carriers face steep fines if they break the rule — up to $27,500 per passenger. So far, only one airline has had to pay up. Last year, the Transportation Department fined American Eagle, the regional unit of American Airlines, $900,000 for lengthy tarmac delays at Chicago O’Hare International Airport in May 2011.
“Our new airline consumer rules and our vigorous oversight of the aviation industry are holding airlines accountable to their customers,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement accompanying the release of the numbers. “We will continue to help make air travel as hassle-free as possible.”
Since August 2011, the tarmac delay rule has also applied to U.S. and foreign airlines operating international flights at U.S. airports. The limit in those cases is four hours, however. In June, there was just one long tarmac delay on an international flight.
Airlines opposed the rule, arguing that it would force them to cancel more flights. And although it hasn’t eliminated all but the longest of delays passengers may have on a tarmac, some analysts say it may have prompted airlines to cancel more flights rather than face the steep penalties.
“The ... ‘three-hour rule’ very quickly becomes a 90-minute rule in actual decision-making practice, which indisputably causes more pre-emptive cancellations than otherwise would be the case,” said Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann and Co., which provides industry analysis.
The Transportation Department has instituted a number of other new consumer protections in recent years, including a requirement that airlines post on their websites the on-time performance of their flights.
Data released Thursday by the department’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics also showed that carriers are continuing a streak of getting passengers and their luggage to their destinations on time.
The 15 largest U.S. airlines were on time 83.7 percent of the time during the first six months of this year, the highest for any comparable period in the 18 years the department has collected data. The previous high of 82.8 percent was set in 2003.
Airlines also canceled the fewest flights in the past 18 years. The 1.1 percent cancellation rate for the six-month period bested the previous record of 1.3 percent in 2002.
The carriers posted their lowest mishandled baggage rates for any January to June since the department started collecting the data in September 1987. There were just 2.97 reports of mishandled bags for every 1,000 passengers, down from 3.60 the same period last year.
Alan Bender, professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said airlines have been more on time partly because they haven’t had to contend with as many major weather events as they’ve had to in the past.
But he also points out that they have cut back on the number of flights they operate to more evenly meet the demand for travel and to make money.
Still, he said, there has been a fundamental change in operational philosophy because of Transportation Department rules.
“The philosophy before was, above all else, to move airplanes and crews — those were the most important things,” he said. “Today airlines have been forced ... to give equal importance to passenger comfort lest they be fined millions and get terrible publicity.”
Nancy Trejos reports for USA Today.