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August 03, 2009

August is National Trapped on the Tarmac Month

As I've mentioned before, my Mother is a letter-writer who is provoked by injustice. She flew to the west coast on my sister's miles, came back via United at O'Hare, and had a negative experience.

The passengers boarded, they taxied out, they parked for two and a-half hours. Taxied back to the ramp; "stay in the gate area". No sooner had she got in line for the rest room, the speakers announce "get back on the plane". Taxi out, park for one, two, three hours in the penalty box. Back to the gate. Flight cancels. No more seats until tomorrow. Manages to get on American, gets home very late at night.

My Mom asked me, who do I write a letter to about this? How could they do this to people, what's wrong with the ATC system? I told her, Mom it's the airlines not the system, but I don't think she believed me. And then I told her, if they cancel the flight there's no official delay, nada, zip, nothing. Guess what? You weren't delayed, and she stopped speaking with me for a little while.

August is the worst month for airline delays and Trapped on the Tarmac stories, because August is the peak thunderstorm month.

Airline Schedules, Runways, and Passengers

There are three great truths about airlines and passengers:
  • Airlines promise people they can take off whenever they want, to fly wherever they want, and sell tickets based on that promise. Not only sell, but oversell. (This Would be generally be considered fraud. Imagine if your baseball team oversold the box seats, and you didn't find out until you got to the stadium.)

    They overschedule the departure airport, they overschedule the destination airport, they overschedule (ie, overbook) the airplane, and they overschedule their gates. If anything goes wrong (like thunderstorms) the whole facade collapses. They blame this on the air traffic system, when this is something the airlines have designed and scheduled — because it's profitable for them.

  • The limiting factor, the operational constraint, is runway acceptance rates. This isn't hard; Goldy Locks handled these problems. There's a rate for very nice weather (60 planes /hour), a rate for medium weather (50 planes/hour), and a rate for lousy weather (40 planes/hour). The airlines, in conjunction with their partners the Port Authority, completely ignore these constraints.

  • Ma and Pa Kettle, who bought six tickets to Miami at $125 each so they can make Cousin Becky's wedding later that same day, don't care about constraints or systems. The airline sold them a 0915 departure; they expect to take off at 0915, land at 1230, and be at the church at 3pm. We put a man on the moon, we should be able to deliver an 0915 Miami takeoff.

Prisoners in the Penalty Box

What really happens is: Ma and Pa Kettle board normally, about :20 minutes late. The aircraft waits on a few connecting passengers who's inbound flights are also off-schedule. They get off the gate and taxi out +35 minutes late, go into a "penalty box" on the taxiway. They wait 1+15 to take off for Miami due to congestion; flights are exceeding capacity. Before they take off, they know they've missed the wedding. They can't get off the (now pointless) flight.

What we have here is: Airline marketing departments (not the flight departments) pick departure times, completely and intentionally ignoring airport capacity. They schedule arrivals with no regard to the load at the destination airport. To add insult to injury, the Airline accepts no accountability for missing their scheduled departure; if the system did have a departure gap for them at the scheduled time, and they push off the gate thirty minutes late and miss that gap, it's not the airline's fault. Just ask them. It's not a failure to communicate; it's an intentional, cynical business model.

Hostages in the Holding Pattern

The airline industry position is: We're going to sell tickets for Whatever we want, Whenever we want. And even if we're way off our own schedule, we want to take off whenever we want. And if we can't, we're going to misinform the passengers while they're a captive audience. You wouldn't let your child behave that way.

Here's the thing: if we had a rational airline schedule, with airports scheduled to operate within airport capacity, the computers could set it up so that Ma and Pa would taxi out on time, and take off right away. If the plane comes out late, they wait for a time, or the flight is cancelled.

What would happen if we had a regulated airline schedule, based on good-weather runway capacities at both departure and destination airports? Airlines would figure out that they can only have so many flights, so in order to sell the same number of tickets they'll use bigger airplanes. They're smart people.

The reason they went to the 70-seat Regional Jets (RJ's, or Replacement Jets in the pilot's vernacular) is union-busting. Airlines had contracts that specified pilot wages in the 90-120, and 121-160 seat ranges - so they broke the Unions by buying 70-seat airplanes. The airports, who charge based on number of aircraft, loved it. There's a lot of 737s parked in the desert that would be flying next week if we only allowed 60 planes/hour at Newark.

Fleet Mix: RJ's and Tarmac Trouble

The chart below started off as a USAToday graphic, and I added some fleet mix info. The fleet mix and delays for Continental, United, Delta and USAirways are ambiguous because their delays represent both Mainline and Contractor (RJ) flights.

I would like to point out that the most 3-hour Tarmac Troubles happen to a pure RJ operation, and the fewest Tarmac Troubles happen to the three airlines that didn't resort to buying RJ's to break their pilot unions.

When you schedule lots of 70-seat airplanes (with $25K pilots) to carry the same number of people as those 140-seaters (with A-scale and B-scale pilots), and airport capacity doesn't care if they're 70-seaters or 140-seaters, you get delays. Think about it the next time you make a reservation.

You Can't Go Home Again

Why don't flights with lengthy delays go back to the gate? Because the airline can't let you go back to the gate. They've over-scheduled their gates. In fact, sometimes the reason you're sitting out there is that the airline needed your airplane to get off the gate, so that waiting airplane could pull into the terminal. This gate congestion is scheduled by the airlines and tolerated by the Port Authority.

Even if there was an open gate, the airline doesn't have any people to park the plane, position the jetway, and staff the desk for your questions. Staffing is razor-thin and sub-contractors are everywhere. At some outstations, as soon as the flight leaves the gate the part-time employees are off the clock. If you spent an hour in the runup pad and then the pilot wants to return to the gate, there might not be anybody to park the plane. Each airline's people park their own planes.

But Ma and Pa Kettle sure are getting a great deal on those $125 tickets to Miami. Too bad about the wedding.

There are exceptions when being stuck in the plane is unavoidable; usually, it involves an unplanned diversion due to bad weather by an international flight into an airport with no customs service. The people are kept on the plane because there's no security or customs officials standing by. There's not much to do about that scenario.

At WWVB, we strive to offer solutions instead of whining:
Instead of considering legislation that gives passengers the right to get off delayed planes, how about this: let's legislate a system where airlines can not sell tickets in excess of airport capacity, and make the problem go away instead of nibbling at the symptoms.

Airlines sell 100 seats on 90-seat airplanes.
They sell tickets for 15 departures at 0800 when that can't possibly happen.
They schedule more arrivals than the destinations can possibly accept.
Their schedule is incompatible with weather. News: Weather Happens™.
They periodically simulate bankruptcy to void inconvenient contracts.
Why did the Enron CEO go to jail, and how come airline executives don't?

Update Aug.8, 2009 See this story about 47 passengers trapped overnight for nine hours in what I believe is a stretch Dash-8 (the QS400). Key excerts:
  • Continental Airlines, which issued the tickets for Flight 2816, referred inquiries to ExpressJet Airlines.
  • Letting the passengers into airport was not possible because... the screeners had gone home for the day.


Don Brown said...

I keep coming up with the same word -- Brilliant. Keep up the good work.

Don Brown

Mark Arsenal said...

Ah, it makes the low-tech, post-petroleum world look ever brighter...

Camilla said...

you are an excelent writer, your blog is my new favorite. I really hate the stupid airlines sometimes... particularly Delta who oversold the flight and then told me that only half of my family could fly home that day... uh ya i will just leave my 2 year old here and he can catch a morning flight, or should i send my 4 year old ahead with out me and hope he can catch a taxi and get home on his own? After they realized they were idiots and making the whole plane sit there for 45 minutes past take off time while i yelled at every person who would listen in the airport they payed someone $450 to get off the plane so my kids could fly home with me. Brilliant move delta, they could have saved a lot of grief and money if they didnt double sell seats!

Orville Wright said...

WWVB + Get The Flick = Immediate solution to AIRLINE delays


Anonymous said...

As a newly retired air traffic controller I can tell you that you have nailed this problem. You've said exactly what I've been thinking for years! Excellent article and I sure wish this could be required reading for every passenger.

Anonymous said...

You Sir are spot on.

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