Who Participated in the Tarmac Delay Discussion?

Tarmac Delay generated a lot of discussion.  There were 106 total comments:

  • 85 were made by 69 users (1 comment was gathered by site administrators from the site feedback page, and added to this post by the moderator.  No username was associated with this comment.)
  • 21 were made by Regulation Room moderators

Commenters included primarily people who identified themselves as air travelers.  Eleven commenters identified themselves as belonging to another interest group: Four as researcher/experts, two as working for a U.S. air carrier, and five as unspecified “other.”

From September 13 to September 19, the Draft Summary was available for comment.  One user suggested changes. During this period, the Regulation Room team reviewed the comments on the Tarmac Delay issue post again; as a result of this review, some additional detail has been added to this summary.

General Concerns over Tarmac Delay

Generally, commenters are concerned with the threat of long tarmac delays.  At least 10 commenters expressed this concern by sharing personal stories of delays, some of which were over 6 hours.  At least two of these commenters report delays experienced since the new 3-hour tarmac delay limit took effect.  Six of the 10 indicated that they experienced delays a number of years ago.  No timeframe was given in the remaining stories.  Commenters compare tarmac delays to being in prison or in a coffin, being treated like cattle or sheep, and being stripped of their freedom and welfare.

Which Flights and Carriers Should Be Covered by a Tarmac Delay Limit

Over 30 commenters say that DOT Department of Transportation should apply a uniform federal time limit on tarmac delay to all flights and airlines, regardless of aircraft size, airport size, and whether the flight is domestic or international.   No commenter argued that DOT Department of Transportation should have a different or shorter tarmac delay rule for international flights.

Many commenters argue that passengers on smaller planes are as uncomfortable during long delays as passengers on larger flights, so new rules should apply to flights of all capacities.  One commenter proposes that tarmac delay limits not apply to flights on aircraft designed to hold fewer than 60 passengers.  This commenter points out that smaller flights have more personal customer service and it is less cumbersome for them to deplane if necessary.  He/she does support tarmac delay rules for international as well as domestic flights, and for all size airports.  A different commenter, whose first preference is to apply tarmac delay rules to all flights, proposes that if all flights are not covered, the cutoff should be set at planes designed to hold fewer than 30 passengers.

How Long the Time Limit Should Be

Most commenters who addressed the issue support DOT Department of Transportation requiring uniform tarmac contingency plans and setting a uniform maximum time limit for tarmac delay.  Nearly 30 commenters agree that passengers should not be on the plane for more than 3 hours (and some say that anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours is too long).  About 20 commenters say that three hours is a good time limit, but many stress that this should be the absolute maximum total time that passengers wait on the plane, including time at the gate as well as on the tarmac.  No commenter suggests a uniform delay limit of more than 3 hours.

Several commenters would allow the maximum delay period to vary under certain circumstances.  Two suggest that the time limit should depend on the number of passengers and the adequacy of food and restroom facilities on the plane.  One commenter argues that permissible delays should be less than three hours in small planes because these planes have so little headroom that passengers find it hard to stand up and walk around.  Another commenter argues that the time limit should make economic sense:  the point at which the cost to the airline of returning to the gate is lower than continuing to sit on the tarmac.  A commenter who self-identified as an experienced airline captain worries about unintended negative consequences for passengers of a strict tarmac delay limit: it may be difficult to re-book passengers on subsequent flights if the flight is canceled due to the 3 hour limit; if the delay is due to something outside the airline’s control (such as weather, air traffic control, or a VIP in the area), passengers will not receive cancellation perks such as reimbursement for food or hotels.  This commenter urges that, so long as there are working restrooms, air conditioning, and food and beverages, the delay limit should be flexible.

Airline Accommodations During Tarmac Delays

Many commenters support DOT’s requiring airlines to provide working bathrooms, water, beverages, snacks and, in some cases, meals on delayed flights.  A few commenters also mention the need for adequate temperature control and the ability to walk around the plane during the delay in order to stretch and use the restroom.

For shorter flights, one commenter suggests that the airline provide food if the delay is longer than the actual flight (e.g. a 30-minute flight that is delayed 3 hours).  Another suggests that airlines adjust scheduled meal service to include the delay (e.g. if schedule calls for a meal 3 hours into flight time, provide a meal after 1 hour of flight time if the flight is delayed 2 hours).  One commenter, who raised the problem of people with medical conditions who require frequent meals, argues that it is unreasonable to expect passengers to pack a full meal when traveling on short flights, e.g. less than an hour.  However, another commenter disagreed that this is the airline’s responsibility; she has juvenile (Type-1) diabetes and even if it’s hard to predict the need to pack a full meal, she packs snacks to tide her over and does not expect the airline to feed her.

Information About Flight Status

At least ten commenters cite the need for the airline and crew to provide detailed updates to passengers stuck on the tarmac.  No commenter disputed this.  Some commenters expect that airlines update passengers every thirty minutes with detailed information.  Others suggest that “regular notice” in real-time is appropriate, without defining or quantifying that.  One commenter believes that airlines have a responsibility to make ample communications to passengers when any problem arises, and thinks this requires updates every five minutes during the delay.

Contingency Plans and Deplaning

Several commenters support DOT’s proposal that airlines and airports be required to work together to develop and implement tarmac contingency plans (or that airports should have their own plans); this is important to create shared responsibility for tarmac delays.

Approximately 20 commenters who cite the need for contingency plans make specific suggestions about deplaning.  One suggests, and approximately 10 others agree, that airlines should allow passengers to deplane and remain in a specified gate area until it is necessary to reboard.  This would facilitate quick reboarding while also addressing the physical and mental health concerns of many commenters, which include conditions such as arthritis, back and knee problems, deep vein thrombosis, claustrophobia, and anxiety.  Some parents emphasize that children have special needs and therefore young passengers must be allowed to deplane; other commenters feel that age is not relevant because all passengers require bathroom facilities.  Several commenters emphasize that passengers who deplane into holding areas should not have to undergo further security scans prior to re-boarding the plane.

Other commenters favor allowing deplaning but do not agree that passengers must remain in a specified area.  One argues that passengers should be allowed to leave the area and make alternative travel arrangements if they wish.

By contrast, some commenters are concerned that deplaning will cause further delays or flight cancellations.  One says that deplaning is a bit extreme, given these concerns.  Another suggests that deplaning should not be an option if the airport is closed or if the plane has adequate bathrooms and food is being served; however, if the airport is open and the airline is not providing food, passengers should be allowed to deplane to purchase food.  Some of the concern about deplaning is that passengers would have to undergo additional security scans before reboarding.  One commenter emphasizes that it is the passengers’ responsibility to return to the plane at a specific time, otherwise the flight will leave without them.

Several commenters who discuss deplaning assume that passengers will be allowed to deplane once the plane returns to the gate, and focus only on the timing issue.  One commenter suggests that deplaning should be permitted after one hour; another, citing difficulty of getting passengers back on the plane when it was ready to depart, suggests two hours.  Six say that the amount of time before passengers are allowed to deplane should depend on the availability of air conditioning, water, food, and bathrooms on the aircraft.  If the services are not available, then the time should be less (one commenter suggests 30 minutes).  Another commenter adds that if all these services are available, the time before deplaning could be more flexible.

Several commenters discussed the idea of airports creating extra “holding” areas by limiting the number of operating flights (thus freeing up gates to use as holding areas), or creating extra gates for the use of delayed flights.  Commenters recognize that these solutions could result in higher prices and make airlines less competitive, although one suggests that such costs would likely be spread across all customers so it would not significantly raise individual ticket prices and could have benefits that outweigh the costs.  This commenter also suggests that holding areas might be remote terminals for planes that had left the gate area.  These facilities could have restrooms, emergency services, etc.  The commenter acknowledges that this plan might be feasible only for large airports that have many delays, with a different approach needed for smaller airports — although another commenter, who thought the idea was interesting, pointed out that large airports in urban areas would likely have trouble expanding to create new terminal space.

This discussion prompted one commenter to suggest that if the airline is aware in advance of a weather delay, passengers should “virtually” board the plane so that the plane can enter a virtual tarmac line.  Then, when the weather is clear, the passengers can actually board the plane.  In this way, the original boarding area would be the holding area.  One commenter further developed the idea of the original boarding area serving as the holding area, suggesting that planes should not be allowed to board unless there is an expected takeoff time issued by FAA ATC and should not be allowed to leave the gate if that time is over three hours.  This commenter believes that if the plane leaves the gate and the time is extended for more than three hours, buses should be provided for any passenger wishing to deplane. Another commenter says that deplaning should not be allowed if the plane has already left the gate and is officially waiting for takeoff.

Another suggestion is that airlines should enter into a barter or cost arrangement with other airlines to use their gates for deplaning. Two commenters argue that better planning and scheduling would prevent lengthy tarmac delays in the first place, and one specifically urges DOT Department of Transportation to focus on the underlying problems.

Commenters discussed whether airlines have sufficiently accurate information from the tower in time to make proactive, strategic decisions.  For related discussions, see the Flight Status Information summary.

Commenters insist that the captain (or an airline representative actually on the flight) should have the power to make the decisions about deplaning.  One commenter expresses frustration that often the people making decisions are middle managers not on the plane.

A few commenters indicate that the issue of deplaning is aggravated because of the method by which flight crew members are paid.  These commenters (one of whom self-identified as an experienced airline pilot) state that airlines do not pay crew members for time spent at the gates, which some imply creates flight crew incentives to spend delays on the tarmac rather than at the gate.

Enforcement: Penalties, Sanctions, and Compensation

A few commenters specifically address DOT’s responsibility to ensure that airlines comply with policies through the use of fines, penalties and other sanctions.  One commenter suggests a $5,000 fine per passenger for violating the tarmac delay time limit.  Another suggests that airlines should face sanctions if either they underestimate the time remaining for a delay in more than 10% of their total delayed flights, or they do not admit to passengers that they have no reliable estimate.

Some commenters suggest that DOT Department of Transportation require airlines to compensate passengers for tarmac delays.  Suggestions include  a free class upgrade if the delay is more than 1.5 hours, a full refund and opportunity to deplane if it is more than 2 hours, and compensation for mechanical (but not weather) delays.  One commenter, however, thinks that compensation is not necessary as long as passengers are given air conditioning, bathrooms, and snacks/beverages.  Another commenter says that that having contingency plans among airlines, and between airlines and airports, is more important than imposing penalties.

Airline Transparency: Contract of Carriage and Statistical Information

A half dozen commenters say that information on tarmac delay regulations and the airlines’ contingency plans should be included in the contract of carriage provided to passengers when they are purchasing their tickets.  One commenter argues that explicit commitments in the contract of service would help customers in choosing a carrier.  Furthermore, offending airlines will have breached their contract of service with passengers.  Another commenter responds that including delay plans in the contract of service is unnecessary as long as airlines run the risk of penalties; these will serve as enough of a deterrent.

Two commenters suggest that consumers be given information on tarmac delays at airports prior to purchasing their tickets.  One commenter says that airlines should keep statistics on delays and frequently review their deplaning plans, providing a specific six-sigma approach for solving the problem.*  Another says that airlines should be required to report the following for all flights: time at terminal, time to board, time out of gate, time wheels up, time wheels down, time to gate, time to deplane, and time out of terminal (This commenter would impose large, and rapidly escalating, compensation requirements for delays at any of these points to incentivize better airline scheduling).

*  This commenter describes Six Sigma as a process that improves quality by: 1) Assigning an executive for improving quality (eliminating or reducing the problem); 2) Identifying problems and ranking them according to accepted criteria; 3) Developing and implementing a process for correcting the highest priority problem; 4) Collecting data to measure changes to the problem (getting better or worse); 5) Reporting results of the data collection and modifying the problem correction process whenever the data indicate the problem is not improving; and 6) Returning to Step 2 until the problem is reduced to acceptable levels.

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