Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Turn this plane around! 

I seriously want to know how it is government thinks it can control tarmac delays at airports.
The federal government will impose stiff penalties starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting too long on the tarmac without feeding them or letting them off the plane � a remedy that will relieve many travelers but mean longer delays for a few.

...Under the rule, airlines that do not provide food and water after two hours or a chance to disembark after three hours will face penalties of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday.

In recent years, relatively few flights have been held on the ground for more than three hours � about 1,500 a year, or roughly one out of 6,200 flights � but that has been enough to affect more than 100,000 passengers a year and to create substantial public resentment.

�This is President Obama�s Passenger Bill of Rights,� said the secretary, Ray LaHood, using the term favored by proponents of like-minded legislation that is before Congress. The administration�s action does not require Congressional approval.

The right granted for disembarkment to passenger 1 is to make the time until takeoff longer for passenger 2 who decides to stay on the plane. Turning the plane around involves not only going back to the gate (if such gate is still empty; there's the possibility of fewer flights in order to have disembarkment points) and then, in the winter in northern parts of the US, a second de-icing of the plane. Air traffic controllers can only waive the rule, the DOT's press release says, if "for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations." I have no idea how big a carve-out that is. The law also applies to international flights.

The cost-benefit analysis of this is online; it says ExpressJet, the proposed new carrier to St. Cloud, would bear costs of $1.6 million per year for compliance. (It's the largest carrier of the smaller jet companies with planes in the 30-60 passenger class, the perpetrator of the Rochester overnight delay last August, and largest of the bunch.) Overall the cost of this program will be $100 million to the airlines

The government's delivery of these rights usurps a proper judicial function of torts. Most delays are the function of weather and air-traffic control, both beyond airline control. 7000 passengers were able to settle for $7.1 million over that Detroit fiasco that Northwest botched after snow clogged runways in 1999. That comes out to about $1000 per person. Will we have too much protection against unpredictable weather in the future to avoid penalties 27 times that much? Will it lead to cancellation of flights? The cost-benefit analysis guesses 2.5% of flights get canceled based on a single study that said if an airport gets closed for one hour for security reasons you get a 5.9% increase in cancellations. (See p. 104.) I find that figure for example a SWAG. There are many more.

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