Airline Passenger Protections:

More Data and Analysis Needed to Understand Effects of Flight Delays

GAO-11-733: Published: Sep 7, 2011. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2011.

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Flight delays and cancellations are disruptive and costly for passengers, airlines, and the economy. Long tarmac delays have created hardships for some passengers. To enhance passenger protections in the event of flight disruptions, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) recently introduced passenger protection regulations, including a rule that took effect in April 2010 designed to prevent tarmac delays more than 3 hours (the tarmac delay rule), as well as other efforts to improve passenger welfare. As requested, this report addresses (1) whether flight delays and cancellations differ by community size; (2) how DOT's tarmac delay rule has affected passengers and airlines; and (3) how passenger protection requirements in the United States, Canada, and the European Union (EU) affect passengers and airlines. GAO analyzed DOT data, including through the use of regression models, as well as data from FlightStats, a private source of flight performance information. GAO also reviewed documents and interviewed government, airline, and consumer group officials in the United States, Canada, and the EU.

Airports in rural communities have higher rates of delays and cancellations than airports in larger communities, but DOT data provide an incomplete picture of this difference. DOT's data include flights operated by the largest airlines, representing about 70 percent of all scheduled flights. GAO analysis of FlightStats data, representing about 98 percent of all scheduled flights, show more substantial differences in flight performance trends by community size than DOT data. DOT has historically not collected data from smaller airlines because of the burden it could impose on these airlines, but without this information, DOT cannot fully achieve the purpose of providing consumers with information on airlines' quality of service. DOT's tarmac delay rule has nearly eliminated tarmac delays of more than 3 hours (180 minutes), declining from 693 to 20 incidents in the 12 months following the introduction of the rule in April 2010. While this has reduced the hardship of long on-board delays for some passengers, GAO analysis suggests the rule is also correlated with a greater likelihood of flight cancellations. Such cancellations can lead to long overall passenger travel times. Airlines and other aviation stakeholders maintain that the tarmac delay rule has changed airline decision-making in ways that could make cancellations more likely. To test this claim, GAO developed two regression models, which controlled for a variety of factors that can cause cancellations and measured whether the time period following the imposition of the tarmac delay rule is correlated with an increase in cancellations. The two models assessed flights canceled before and after leaving the gate, for the same 5 months (May through September) in 2009 and 2010. In both cases, GAO found that there was an increased likelihood of cancellation in 2010 compared to 2009. EU requirements provide airline passengers with more extensive protections, such as care and compensation, for flight delays, cancellations, and denied boardings than do U.S. or Canadian requirements. But these protections may also increase costs for airlines and passengers. For example, some airline officials in the United States and the EU told GAO that increases in the amount of denied boarding compensation has increased their overall costs. Additionally, enhanced passenger protections, such as those in the EU, can create enforcement challenges if regulations are unclear or not universally enforced. GAO recommends that DOT collect and publicize more comprehensive data on airlines' on-time performance and assess the full range of the tarmac delay rule's costs and benefits and, if warranted, refine the rule's requirements and implementation. DOT did not comment directly on the recommendations, but indicated that it would soon begin a study of the effect of the tarmac delay rule.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When the agency provides additional information, we will update the status.

    Recommendation: To enhance aviation consumers' decision-making, the Secretary of Transportation should collect and publicize more comprehensive on-time performance data to ensure that information on most flights, to airports of all sizes, is included in the Bureau of Transportation Statistics' database. DOT could accomplish this by, for example, requiring airlines with a smaller percentage of the total domestic scheduled passenger service revenue, or airlines that operate flights for other airlines, to report flight performance information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2011, GAO reported that long tarmac delays, among other disruptions, are costly for passengers, airlines, and the economy. DOT, in April 2010, implemented a regulation designed to mitigate hardships for airline passengers during long tarmac delays (the tarmac delay rule). Since the rule went into effect, tarmac delays of more than 3 hours have been nearly eliminated, with no delays of more than 4 hours, reducing the hardship for numerous passengers. However, GAO's analysis shows that the rule appears to be associated with an increased number of cancellations for thousands of additional passengers, which is far more than DOT initially predicted, including some who might not have experienced a tarmac delay. Though it is difficult to know how passengers might choose between a long tarmac delay and a cancellation, and what costs and burdens their choices would entail, determining the net benefit to airline passengers resulting from the rule and assessing whether there is a causal relationship between the rule and any changes in flight cancellations will be critical to passengers and airlines. Also, our analysis could only include data from the first summer of the rule's implementation, so using data through the summer of 2011 may yield useful information for policymakers. Moreover, additional information and analysis are needed to fully understand the effects of the tarmac delay rule on passengers. Therefore, GAO recommended that DOT fully assess the impact of the tarmac delay rule, including the relationship between the rule and any increase in cancellations and how they affect passengers. In response, DOT contracted with Econometrica to conduct an independent review of the tarmac delay rule. In January 2014, DOT released the report by Econometrica, which found that the tarmac delay rule has had some beneficial and adverse impacts on passenger welfare since its inception. For example, the report found that the tarmac delay appears to have had an adverse impact on flight cancellations in the summer months of 2011, but that cancellations during the summers of 2010 and 2012 appear to be to have a smaller impact or be non-existent. Further, the report concludes that it is difficult to characterize the overall impact of cancellations and lengthy on-board delays attributable to the tarmac delay rule on passenger welfare. As a result, DOT has more complete information to enhance its understanding of the impact of tarmac delays and flight cancellations.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOT's understanding of the impact of tarmac delays and flight cancellations, the Secretary of Transportation should fully assess the impact of the tarmac delay rule, including the relationship between the rule and any increase in cancellations and how they effect passengers and, if warranted, refine the rule's requirements and implementation to maximize passenger welfare and system efficiency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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