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Long Tarmac Delay Rule : A View From The Cockpit.

As with numerous rule making decisions the persons affected the most are the least likely to be part of the process in designing the rule or analyzing the outcomes. There has been much said in the media and by politicians concerning the results of the long tarmac delay rule. Having been Captain of 2 out of 10 of the most delayed fights in the United States I thought I would give my perspective and try to dispel some myths. As you will find the solutions brought about by the new ruling are more nuanced than might be expected so let me try and explain.

Flights Are Cancelled As A Result Of The New Long Tarmac Delay Rule.

The long tarmac delay rule has had many benefits for both the traveler and the flight crew without a noticeable difference in the number of cancellations. The largest change in cancellations is where you are sitting when your flight is cancelled. Before the rule you would have been sitting on the taxiway when you got the message that your flight was cancelled. Now you are more likely to hear about the cancellation while sitting at home or in the terminal. The reason for the cancellation has not changed.

There are both positive and negative affects from this rule being implemented. To help you better understand the nuanced affect of the new rule let me relate to you some real life scenarios and the before and after affect of the new Tarmac Delay rule on these scenarios.

Scenario 1 - Four Hour Take Off Delay Due To Weather At the Departure Airport:

You are scheduled to fly from Newark Airport to Chicago O’Hare. Prior to boarding there is an announcement that departure delays out of Newark are up to four hours but the situation might change since the weather causing the delay is now moving away from the airport.

Pre Tarmac Delay Rule:

We probably would have pushed off the gate and waited on the taxiway for two reasons. First, if we can get in line and there is a break in the weather or the traffic flow out of the airport decreases, Air Traffic Control (ATC) may let us takeoff early. There are times when only a few planes are able to get out and then they shut down the departures again. If we are first in line we might be one of the planes able to take off and our decision to taxi to the runway early was a success.

One consideration during this process is there are only a few predefined departure routes away from Newark and if the weather along our departure route is bad then we will probably sit on the ground for awhile. If we look at the radar and see the weather along our departure path is clearing then we might want to start making our way to the runway. The risk we run is in other aircraft asking to be rerouted along the same departure path if they see the weather getting better.

The down side is that we might be number thirty in line and when they shut down the arrivals again we are still waiting on the tarmac, although now we are number twenty five for departure.

The second reason we would have pushed off the gate is the terminal is now filling up with passengers and the flight crew is under pressure to push the plane off the gate. This is an uncomfortable position to be in and prior to the long tarmac delay rule the Captain may have opted to get more gas and then taxi out because we know we are going to be waiting for a long time before takeoff and burning gas while we are waiting.

While we are waiting we are burning gas similar to a car’s engine idling. The one difference is that airliners have an auxiliary power unit (APU). The APU is a small turbine engine producing adequate electricity and air conditioning to allow us to shut down the engines. Normally we will taxi out to a position on the taxiway or tarmac and then shut down the engines using the APU for power and air conditioning therefore burning much less gas than the engines. On most of the jets I have flown, an airplane sitting with the engines shut down and the APU running will burn in 2 to 3 hours the same amount of gas as just one engine running for one hour or both engines running for thirty minutes. This is the reason why we normally shut our engines down if we know there will be a long delay.

Post Tarmac Delay Rule:

We normally will not leave the gate because the delay will be longer than the three hour limit imposed by the rule. This is good for business in the terminal because you will be spending more time waiting in the terminal instead of on an airplane. The only exception is if we feel that there is a compelling reason that we would be able to take off earlier. This is rare and the Captain would coordinate with both the airlines operations and ATC. This is now very rarely done because we don't want to risk our ability to get back to the gate within the three hour time limit and face large fines imposed by the new rule.

It might sound odd that we would have a problem getting back to the gate but if there are more planes on the airport taxiing than there are gates available we might me one of the unlucky ones unable to find a gate. This was more of a problem before the new rule which has for the most part been eliminated. Now we would not leave the gate if we think we will not be taking off in the next hour or two.

Scenario 2 - Delay at Destination While Taxiing To The Runway:

You board your flight from Memphis to Cincinnati and begin taxiing to the runway. The plane comes to a stop and the engines shut down and your thinking this is not good. The Captain makes an announcement that some weather has moved into the Cincinnati area and there is now a Ground Stop and there will be an update from ATC in two hours.

A Ground Stop to an airport is a delay issued by ATC to hold aircraft on the ground at their departure airports instead of letting them take off and hold in the air. This is both safer and more efficient since the plane on the ground will not be burning the extra fuel that we take along on every flight. This will also prevent the aircraft from diverting because if we hold long enough we will burn our reserve fuel and therefore not have enough to make it safely to our destination and divert. Therefore the Ground Stop is a good tool implemented by ATC.

There are times especially in the summer months when a storm will suddenly grow and then pass over the airport. They usually don’t last very long but arrivals to the airport must be stopped because landing while a thunderstorm is over the airport is not safe due to the high probability of wind shear. Wind shear is a sudden change in direction or speed of the wind which can be dangerous especially if the aircraft is close to the ground and there is not enough altitude to recover from the wind shear.

After waiting two hours we hear from ATC that the weather has moved away from the airport but we have an expected departure clearance time one hour from now. Since we have already been waiting two hours and one more hour would put us at the three hour limit we decide to go back to the gate and open the doors allowing passengers to deplane but we tell them that we are only going to be here for a few minutes since we have a departure time in one hour.

Another problem has arisen because if we are not off the ground in two hours from now we are going to “time out”. We use the term “time out” when referring to maximum duty times. The FAA mandates that pilots cannot be on duty more than 16 hours and we are now approaching that limit.

While sitting back at the gate ATC calls us and tells us that we can go if we can be ready in five minutes for takeoff. We tell ATC we need to get people back in their seats and then we will call them back. After fifteen minutes all passengers are on board and we are ready to go. We push back from the gate and begin to taxi when we get more bad news.

Another ground stop has been issued due to volume of planes flying into Cincinnati and we will get an update in two hours. This really isn’t our day. We tell ATC about our situation that we will time out in two hours and ask if they could try and put us at the front of the line if the ground stop is lifted. He reminds us that we could have taken off when he asked us before. We then remind the controller that we have new long tarmac delay rules which require us to go back to the gate. He says point taken.

After an hour of waiting we get some good and bad news. The ground stop is lifted but our departure time is in 90 minutes from now. We tell the controller we can only wait 60 minutes before we time out and if he can get us in earlier that would be great.

We reminded the controller 55 minutes later that we can only wait another 5 minutes. The controller comes back and says the best he can do is let us depart in 15 minutes. We tell him we will wait the 5 minutes and if any opening comes up please let us know so we can take off. The controller allows us to taxi to the end of the runway and wait just in case they can let us go early.

Five minutes goes by and the controller says that unfortunately he can’t let us take off early. We thank him for his help and ask to taxi back to the gate because we have reached our duty time limit. We get back to the gate and the flight is cancelled due to crew duty time.

Pre Tarmac Delay Rule:

We would have stayed out by the runway waiting for the chance to take off which in this scenario did happen. This would have prevented the flight from canceling.

Post Tarmac Delay Rule:

Most airlines will return to the gate well before spending three hours on the tarmac. This has lead to us missing an opportunity to depart due to changes in our wheels up time. In some cases early returns to the gate have caused cancellations.

The Good. The Bad. The Unpaid

The Long Tarmac Delay Rule has been successful in reducing the amount of time you will spend on the ground in an airplane. One negative affect of the new rule is that it has caused an increase in the number of flight cancellations. We as pilots know there is an increase but because of the difficulty in collecting data due to the nuances in the way delays are subject to real world conditions we may never see valid statistical data concerning cancellations. Especially since the total number of cancelled flights has not increased appreciably.

Data collection and reporting of such instances would be difficult but not impossible. For instance my second scenario would be reported to the Department of Transportation as a Cancellation due to the crew duty limits. It would be beneficial if we could see additional comments on the cancellations or more cancellation codes that reflect the real world situation. For example, in our scenario it would be better for our analysis if we could put comments on the “cancelation due to crew duty limits” with additional comments “crew determined if not complying with the long tarmac delay rules the flight would not have been cancelled”.

Pilots are now required to comply with the new Long Tarmac Delay rule which as I have show will in some cases cause a cancelled flight. Since pilots are mission oriented and want to complete the flight as originally planned it leads us to frustration and at times I hear from fellow airline pilots about the frustration because a flight was cancelled. But remember that not only is our mission to fly people safely we must also take into consideration the passengers’ comfort and resign ourselves to the fact that a flight cancellation is better for the passenger than sitting on the Tarmac for hours on end.

We only need to look towards the media, government, and the consumer protection organizations to realize the majority of passengers are happy with the Long Tarmac Delay Rule. So even though some flights are cancelled due to the new Long Tarmac Delay rule it would be rare to see any statistics showing a cancellation due to this rule because of the way the cancellation is recorded.

One more way the rule has affected flight crews is the loss of pay if the flight is cancelled. Flight crews are normally paid only when the door is closed and pushed back from the gate. Therefore, if we are delayed five hours and are parked at the gate we are not getting paid. Most airlines will pay the flight crew for their scheduled flight whether they fly the flight or not. There are some airlines that do not protect the flight crews pay if the flight cancels. For example if a flight crew member is scheduled to fly one hundred hours in a month and has a flight cancel which was five hours they will get paid for ninety five hours.

Conclusion:

The long tarmac delay rule has been a resounding success in limiting the number of hours passengers stay in the airplane on the taxiways. There also has not been an appreciable increase in overall flight cancellations. Many have interpreted this to mean there are no cancellations due to the new rule. As I have illustrated there are cancellations due to the rule. Until there is a methodology of measuring the nuanced decisions involved in making a decision to return to the gate we will not have a true statistical measurement of cancelations due to the long tarmac delay rule.


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