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Tarmac Delays, Flight Cancellations and You

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It's a common scenario, particularly during the winter months. You arrive at the airport to catch your flight home, head to the check-in kiosk and discover that your flight has been canceled. As you walk toward the ticket counter, you realize that you might not make it onto the next flight, or the one after that. In fact, you might not fly out for a couple of days.

Why?

Weather Delays

In many cases, weather conditions cause airports to shut down or scale back operations. Blizzards, thunderstorms and ice storms are predictable, but not controllable. Once flights are canceled due to weather conditions, a "domino effect" begins to occur, as flights from other airports cannot land at their destinations. These flights, too, must be canceled or delayed. Only when the weather conditions change and runways reopen can normal operations resume, and by that time there are hundreds of passengers waiting to be booked on later flights.

Gate Availability

When flight schedules are disrupted by weather or equipment failure, airlines may face gate availability issues. Gates are tightly scheduled, and once your flight has been delayed, its gate slot at your destination airport goes away. Getting into another gate at a later time could present problems, particularly during peak travel periods, and cancelling the flight may be your airline's only alternative.

Crowded Flights

Anyone who has flown in the last couple of years knows that airlines have cut back on flights to ensure full or nearly-full airplanes. This practice, while good for airlines' financial statements, makes rebooking more difficult than ever before. There are so few seats open on any airplane that passengers whose flights are canceled may have to wait hours or even days before getting a ticket on a later flight.

Department of Transportation Regulations

In April 2010, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) enacted regulations designed to reduce tarmac delays for passengers on domestic flights. Under the new regulations, airlines that leave passengers on the tarmac (including taxi time to and from the gate) for more than three hours may be fined up to $27,500 per passenger. That's a lot of money. The incentive to avoid these fines is correspondingly great, and, particularly in cases of weather-related delays, airlines now must consider canceling flights altogether as an alternative to the possibility of incurring a large fine.

There is no question that the DOT regulations have reduced long tarmac delays for domestic passengers. The effects of the regulations on flight cancellation policies are less certain. According to Joshua Marks of Marks Aviation and Darryl Jenkins of The Airline Zone, who conducted a study titled "Summer 2010 Cancellations and the Five-Month Impact of the Three-Hour Tarmac Rule," flight cancellations rose 18% over the same five-month period in 2009, potentially affecting 384,000 passengers, even though weather conditions in 2010 were better than those in the previous year. Marks and Jenkins argue that airlines' systematic cancellation of flights is a pre-emptive tactic designed to avoid tarmac delay fines, and that the number of passengers helped by the three-hour rule is far lower than the number of passengers adversely affected by these anticipatory cancellations.

Next: What to Do if Your Flight Is Canceled

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