The U.S. federal government’s tarmac delay rules prohibit an airline from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers.
He concludes that United was so deficient that the situation underscores the need for the government to play a role.
Historically I’ve been pretty cynical on the 3-hour rule based on the theory that that airlines should be able to put in place a program and manage it themselves rather than have a government-mandated version. It seems that United failed doubly in this case, both by not drawing up a feasible plan and then by not bothering to try once they realized the plan was failing.
That doesn’t seem right to me.
Regular readers of this blog know that I’m no United Airlines apologist. But the story underscores just how silly fining United is for circumstances outside of its control, where it’s likely doing the very best for its passengers under very difficult circumstances.
It was a day of terrible thunderstorms. Lightning and poor visibility limited aircraft movements. In some sense, United was fined for a force majeur event.
The Department of Transportation holds airlines responsible for overcoming such circumstances. They fault United for not implementing their delay mitigation plan, for which Wandering Aramean characterizes United as “admitting” whereas I’d point out not an admission of fault but making the point that even a delay mitigation plan wouldn’t have helped under the circumstances.
That its mitigation plan was insufficient to prevent these flights from sitting on the tarmac points to the extremities of the circumstances, rather than to United’s failures.
United couldn’t park smaller regional jets side by side at a gate, and they couldn’t offload planes, and move those planes elsewhere at the airport. They couldn’t move planes and offload passengers with the ongoing lightning.
Since the delays involved regional jets belonging to their United Express affiliates, and airport rules require the operating carrier’s mechanics to be on hand to move those planes without cockpit crew in place (as though United’s own mechanics are incapable!), United is in some sense being fined for Chicago’s union featherbedding rules.
The government faulted the airline for not diverting planes to other airports. United could have done that and avoided fines, but that would not have been better for its customers. Sending planes to other airports, offloading passengers, re-boarding them, and flying them to a congested Chicago later would have been a far longer and greater inconvenience than what the airline is being fined for. And it would have also been a much greater inconvenience for passengers on later flights whose aircraft would have been at other airports. Here even with the fine United probably made the right decision considering its own costs and the costs to its customers.
Even in the most extreme case, that convinces a skeptic of the rule like Wandering Aramean is, it seems the government is using a very blunt instrument to fine an airline that is doing its best under the circumstances, making the right decisions for its passengers, and hamstrung by weather, airport capacity, and the rules of other government entities.
The DOT report on the incidents does note that United didn’t reach out to other airlines at O’Hare about the possibility of using their gates. It does not, however, suggest that was a likely possibility with those airlines similarly affected by an inability to move planes around the tarmac.
After an event where things go wrong, you can always point to something an actor might have done differently, hypothesizing a counterfactual where things could have gone differently. Ultimately though the problem was an overburdened airport in very bad weather. The greater culpability lies first with whatever being controls the weather, and second with the entity in charge of the capital stock and rules of the airport. But the DOT doesn’t go after them.
At some level the DOT realizes this, as less than half the fine has to be paid out to the federal government. And it could be worse — in Italy they might put the scientists on trial for failing to predict the event.
United successfully deplaned 1156 flights that day without triggering the 3 hour rule. They cancelled 121 flights rather than risk exceeding the three hour rule. On the whole they acted well, with only 13 flights exceeding a 3-hour delay.
Of those 13 flights, four exceeded three hours by less than 10 minutes. Not a single flight exceeded three hours by 90 minutes.
And all of this despite the severe weather coming as a surprise — forecasts had been for only a 30% chance of rain. That hardly seems deserving of fines.
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