11.3.10

I LOVE UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES. Airlines Threaten to Cancel Flights.

Airlines are pushing back against new rules that give fliers more rights.

They are threatening to cancel scores of flights in response to a new rule that would prohibit airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving travelers the opportunity to get off the plane. As of April 29, carriers that break the rule would face steep fines of up to $27,500 per passenger, or more than $4 million on a full Boeing 737 or Airbus A320.

Carriers say that to avoid those fines, they will aggressively cancel flights before and during storms—even if the bad weather never materializes. The threats could foreshadow significant changes in air travel, making it even less reliable for millions of road warriors and vacationers. By canceling flights, it could take days for all travelers to get home when storms strike.

What's missing from this singularly instructive article is any hint that the air carriers will add more capacity, whether as additional planes or additional gates, or additional runways.

The three-hour limit doesn't mean flights must be canceled at three hours or face fines, just that airlines and airports have to find a way to get people off of an airplane if they want off. That can mean returning to a gate to unload passengers or rolling up a staircase and busing passengers back to terminals. Pilots have to agree that it's safe to unload people and air-traffic controllers have to agree that it wouldn't be disruptive to operations—both major caveats likely to limit disruption from the new rule.

Getting people off flights can be a major disruption for airlines and airports. One major penalty: Air-traffic controllers take flights first-come, first-serve, forcing them into long lines and punishing them for leaving the line and returning to a terminal. And sometimes when flights return to a gate pilots become ineligible under federal duty rules to continue that trip.

Procedures like returning to gates or using portable stairs and buses are uncommon in the U.S. (Remote parking and busing passengers is far more common in Europe.) But airports and airlines are working on new procedures and options for flights that face long delays, including more buses, stairs and reserving gates for quickly unloading customers.

The benefit-cost calculations for cross-country fast trains, and the Midwestern passenger rail network, look better all the time. Three hours should be Chicago to Springfield (why fly?) or Wisconsin Dells (you can't fly there) or Iowa City or Oshkosh (hee!)

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