Christopher Hinton, MarketWatch
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — Strong winds combined with new rules to protect passengers from getting stranded on the tarmac during lengthy delays resulted in the airline industry’s first flight cancellations last weekend. It’s a harbinger of what travelers will experience this summer.
Introduced in December, the new rules come in response to recent horror stories of passengers being stuck on planes for extended periods without food, fresh water or clean lavatories.
“You are going to see this kind of problem at several major airports over the summer, such as Dallas and Atlanta, because of thunderstorms,” said Robert Herbst, founder of AirFinancials.com, during an interview Tuesday. In many cases, airlines will likely cancel the flights before they even push back from the gate to avoid hefty fines.
As of April 29, U.S. airlines operating domestic flights can no longer leave planes sitting on tarmacs at large and midsize airports for more than three hours, except for reasons of security and safety. Carriers in violation face fines of up to $27,000 per passenger.
Airlines have said the new rules would lead them to cancel flights rather than risk the fines. That threat will likely become acute during the busy summer months, when severe thunderstorms and lightning often cause disruptions, typically beginning in June.
Over the weekend, airlines operating out of New York City’s airports reported a small number of cancellations due to poor weather. Of those numbers, two jets actually taxied away from the terminal and then later returned before facing fines that could easily add up to millions of dollars.
One of those attempted departures, Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) flight 155 from JFK to Los Angeles, waited on the tarmac for about 90 minutes on Saturday before giving up and returning to the gate at about 9 p.m. Eastern. Stranded customers had to wait until the next morning for another flight.
The Transportation Department said there was a second flight cancelled under the new rules, but the agency could not immediately provide details.
AMR Corp.’s (AMR) American Airlines and JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) cancelled their flights before the planes left the gates, so officially it was not due to the new tarmac rules.
In the case of JFK, the airport is further hobbled by the loss of one of its runways, which is closed through July 1 as workers make repairs.
Aside from disgruntled customers, AirFinancials’ Herbst noted that the new rules could actually be beneficial for airlines, because they will do away with a lot of the costs related to long delays — such as overtime pay for employees.
What’s more, the airlines are not obligated to pay for stranded passengers’ hotel and food bills as they wait for the next flight, he added.
“The bottom line of it is that it’s not a three-hour rule; it’s two hours, because the airline has to allow time to get the plane back to the gate,” Herbst said.