Kate Hanni and I Talk About Delays, We Disagree (Part Two)

Yesterday on “Delays of Our Lives” . . . after a few rounds of going back and forth, it became clear that Kate Hanni has boiled down long onboard delays on simple overscheduling. I definitely disagree. Today we pick up where we left off. The next question in my mind was obvious . . .

Cranky: So it’s back to the overscheduling issue. If that’s the case, then why do a 3 hour rule instead of slot controls? Kate: First, some people think 3 hours is too much. Let me give you an example. Imagine if we had sat 179 minutes in San Francisco before takeoff for New York. Imagine that we sat 179 minutes in the plane and then we took off and flew for 4 hours and then

Cranky: Come on, that’s an incredibly rare situation where something like that would happen. Kate: No it’s not that rare. And here’s my argument about that. I said have it your way, it’s rare. If it’s rare it will have no impact. The airlines wouldn’t be fighting this if it were so rare. The data you see doesn’t show everything.

Cranky: What is it missing? Kate: International flights are not included at all. Also, it only includes domestic airlines that have at least 1% of the air travel revenue in the country. I would say that 300% of flights that are sitting on the tarmac are not included in the data.

Cranky: How do you know that? Kate: There are approximately 150 air carriers in the US and only 19 report.

Cranky: Yeah, but most of the airlines that fly into slot constrained airports report. Who cares if some small airline reports in some tiny town? Kate: I’ll give you an example. Spirit Air doesn’t report because they’re just under the threshold but they’ve had long delays recently.

Cranky: Back to the 3 hour rule. Why is this better way to handle it than just putting slots at the airports? Kate: It would have been better if the government stepped in and regulated congestion effectively but they didn’t. The Bush Administration didn’t want to do that, so this is the only thing that can be done since the airlines have refused voluntarily to reduce capacity.

Cranky: But airlines have agreed to voluntarily reduce capacity. United and American did it in O’Hare. There are caps in place at Newark . . . Kate: It was a failure. When the DOT asked if some airlines would reduce their schedules, they did and then other airlines grew.

Cranky: Ok, so let’s say that we have scheduled everything perfectly to match capacity. But what about when bad weather comes in and reduces capacity? You can’t schedule for that and delays can happen. What do you do? Kate: Those types of problems are caused by extreme weather, and the GAO says that 7% of airline delays are caused by extreme weather. . .

Cranky: That’s not true. Look at San Francisco, for example. You get some fog in there and they lose half their capacity. That’s not extreme weather. Kate: We have very few complaints from San Francisco. I’m talking about extreme weather that causes delays over 3 hours. The airlines and their station manager and operations manager have a meeting several times a day as to what’s going to be coded as weather. Occasionally you’re going to have mechanical delays and weather delays, but they can code it however they want.

Cranky: But do we really need this? I mean, haven’t things changed since you were stuck in Austin? Haven’t the airlines made changes? Kate: They haven’t changed anything. Nothing has changed except they’re fighting us tooth and nail. Just on the last trip I was going to do a report card in Washington DC. I called Delta to make sure my flight was going to be on time and they said that there was going to be a four hour delay but they hadn’t notified me. They said they didn’t have a crew. I asked how they knew they’d have a crew in four hours? The agent said, “We should probably tell you it’ll be indefiinitely.” I think they just told me because I’m a consumer advocate.

Cranky: I know that if I was on a flight that hit the 3 hour mark, I’d rather wait 20 minutes to take off then go back to the gate and not be able to fly for days because the flight canceled. Kate: But would you want to be there for nine hours?

Cranky: No, but come on. That’s incredibly uncommon if it happens at all. Kate: Nine hour delays happen a lot.

Cranky: I’d like to see those numbers. Kate: I don’t have them with me, but I’ll be back at my computer in a couple hours and I’ll send them to you.

Cranky: Great, I look forward to seeing that. Thanks for talking with me.

She did send me her data in the form of her 2009 Airline Report Card (PDF), but it didn’t look as bad as she said. Though she mentioned that nine hour delays “happen a lot,” there were only 13 delays of over 5 hours at the top 35 airports for all of 2009. In addition, for all the reporting airlines, there were 904 delays of over 3 hours. That may sound like a lot, but that was out of 6,450,285 flights. Yes, it’s a very small number.

Some of the things she mentions show a lack of understanding of how the system works. For example, when I mentioned that San Francisco fog problems can cause delays, she said that she doesn’t get many complaints from there so that’s not the problem. Of course that’s the case. The delay is usually on inbound flights because of the visibility issues, and airplanes have to be held at their departure point if it’s bad enough. That can cause congestion at some of the other airports, and if there’s weather elsewhere, it can snowball.

She acts like the airlines haven’t done anything since she was stuck on a plane, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Most airlines had some sort of policy before, but those have been strengthened with public policies and stronger chain-of-command to ensure it doesn’t happen. Is it perfect? Of course not. Airlines are incredibly complex and operate all over the world. It’s not possible to ensure that things never go wrong, but it is possible to keep working as hard as possible to reduce long delays from occurring.

Though Kate blames everything on airline scheduling practices, it’s the variability of operational capacity that makes things tougher. If the winds shift, your capacity can go down. If rain turns to ice, you have a mess on your hands. What this rule is going to do is encourage airlines to operate more conservatively to make sure they don’t face fines, and that will mean more cancellations.

It’s not like you can just magically open the door at 3 hours on the ground. Planes will now need to be called back starting around 2 hours to make sure that they can get out of line, taxi back and get doors open in time to avoid the fine. Once that door opens, the pilots are likely to time out. Without a crew, that flight is more likely to cancel and then people are stuck.

I continue to predict that we will see more cancellations and more unhappy passengers than we see today. If overscheduling really were the issue, this isn’t the way to handle it. That’s what slot controls are for, but they still will never be able to match demand with the ever-changing airport capacity during changing weather situations. It’s just the nature of the industry, and all airlines, airports, and air traffic control can do is keep working to try to make it run more smoothly. Blanket rules like this don’t help.

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