The FAA and the 3 Hour Rule

Two days ago, I took exception to a post made by the very popular blogger, The Cranky Flier, over statements made about the 3 Hour Rule.  The dialogue taking place over there highlights the biggest problems with arguments being made for and against the 3 Hour Rule.  Too many judgements are being made on both sides on the basis of incomplete data and emotional arguments rather than facts.

The FAA argued that tarmac delays were dramatically down versus a slight increase in cancellations and, I agree, crowing about it just a bit too much.  Cranky argued that the “slight increase” was in fact a 20% increase and there was an emotional reaction to that.  The problem is, no definition or data is being given for really measuring the impact of the rule on cancellations or the impact of the rule on people. 

Most of the original arguments made for a 3 Hour Rule were derived from exceptionally rare events.  Even when you considered those events in a seasonal context, they were vastly outside the norms.  Indeed, you might have been able to say that 3+ hour delays occurred infrequently enough to be considered statistically insignificant.  What we do know is that if your population of events is large enough, you’re going to have a few that occur far outside the norms. 

Further, we reacted emotionally to the conditions people sat through on many of those flights and really only to the subjective reactions on the part of people who spoke to the press.  We never heard from the person who just sat on the plane quietly for 7 hours and thanked his lucky stars he finally arrived home and got off.   That person doesn’t play well on CNN. 

I do think that there is an argument to be made for limits on the basis of health and welfare of individuals on flights.  I do not think it is wise to hold people on a MD-80 for 8 hours except in the case of major emergencies.

There are health issues to consider such as the close proximity and contact that occurs between a wide variety of people in that environment.  Air quality is another.  Sanitation is also a serious one.  Food and water is really a strong factor as well.  And let me point out that we will divert an entire aircraft to an unscheduled stop when someone is having a medical emergency.  There should be a discussion on how we value the health and welfare of people in these situations.  And just because 4 people want to go at all costs doesn’t mean that rises above the needs of 4 people who have serious health conditions that could well be impacted by a prolonged stay inside an aircraft. 

We should carefully evaluate anything we hear in the media about cancellations as well.  Should we be giving full weight to the person who had a flight cancelled and who suffered a 24 hour delay vs the other 10 people who had a flight cancelled and suffered a 5 hour delay?   Is a businessman’s need to get to the next meeting superior to the mother’s need to get her 2 young children off a plane because of health considerations?  The truth is, I don’t have black and white answers to questions like that but it would be good to see a debate on issues like that.  We, as consumers, should see a bit of argument on both sides and get a more complete picture before we start judging these moments purely on our needs at that particular moment.

As far as the data goes, we don’t know what the impact of this rule is.  We aren’t measuring the impact by the number of people per 100,000 travelers who are getting their flights cancelled specifically because of the 3 hour rule.  We know that cancellation rates go up and down.  Those cancellations can be caused by seasonal events, bad airline operations or, frankly, just a bad week of equipment failures at a particular airline (I believe it was AA who recently saw not one, not two but three 767s go INOP in a single day).  We do know that the overwhelming majority of flights never come close to spending 3 hours delay on the airfield.  Seriously, we do know that.  We know that the frequency of occurrence for delays going past 3 hours prior to the 3 Hour Rule was negligible by any standard. 

What I believe (which is different than objective fact) is that we also have a need for some kind of rule governing those instances that did fall outside all of the norms and which were not caused by major acts of god or major emergencies.  As Doug Parker said, the airlines did this to themselves in many respects.   There were enough instances that we, as a nation, found unacceptable given the particular circumstances around the event.  Airlines and airports didn’t deal with those situations considering what might be humane but instead were making objective decisions based on operational and financial data. 

Objective data and objective decisions are, generally speaking, good to have.  However, we live in a world with human beings who are very subjective creatures.  Yes, you really do have to give consideration to that. 

Statistically speaking, an increase in cancellations that sees a rise from 1.18 percent to 1.43 denotes an exceptionally slight increase from an objective point of view.  The FAA was right.  However, the FAA failed to consider the number of people who were potentially impacted by that slight increase and Cranky was right to point out that these incredibly slight increases do have an impact on a rather large number of people.  By Cranky’s math, that slight increase potentially affected 150,000 more people.  Are we satisfied with the idea that more people than the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium can hold were materially affected by a cancellation?  Well, we can’t even make that judgment because we don’t know all of the “why” behind each cancellation. 

But I think we can agree that it isn’t anything to brag about when 150,000 more people were affected by cancellations.  If nothing else, it is in appropriate to reduce people, human beings, to that kind of statement.

At some point we all should start acknowledging that our airline transportation system is imperfect and cannot delivery you to your destination 100% on time without any cancellations.  If you travel by air, you are going to be affected by a combination of factors virtually every time.  It’s time to be a bit more reasonable in our expectations.

On the other hand, it’s time for airlines to start acknowledging that as well.  One of the biggest causes of uproars over these kinds of situations is an airlines propensity to expect us to adhere to a byzantine set of rules governing our options when traveling while allowing themselves all manner of leeway for those same events.  Airlines want a $20 fee to check a bag but they don’t want to refund that money when they don’t perform.  However, when you miss flight due to a large traffic jam or weather event, you’re often expected to pay penalties and change fees for being affected by something outside your control. 

Not even Las Vegas has a better rigged game than the present US airline industry.  That is what is driving the perception that airlines are abusing people.  And I think it’s manifesting itself in reactions to the more outrageous although exceptionally infrequent events such as a long tarmac delay.  A little more balance between the airline and its customer is called for in my opinion.

Is it right for the government and/or the FAA to regulate some of this behaviour?  Absolutely.  Airlines are using public airways and other public infrastructure while serving the public.  They benefit from a great deal of government investment and expenditures.  The government is not created by the businesses for the businesses.  It’s here for the citizens.  The people who vote and who are ultimately and individually responsible for this nation.  That said, it doesn’t mean that the regulation and oversight needs to be hamhanded or political either.  However, just like no human being or airline is perfect, neither is government. 

Let’s be a bit more realistic about our expectations for all parties involved in this subject area.

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