Steve Chapman

At those prices, protracted waits on the tarmac will soon be a thing of the past. But the change won't keep fliers from having to endure even longer delays or other major headaches. The ATA says cancellations will become more common, and American Airlines says "we will be forced to cancel more flights than we had under our self-imposed, four-hour policy."

Aviation consultant Robert Mann agrees. "The unintended consequence: No one gets to go," he told The Chicago Tribune's Julie Johnsson. Instead of being stuck in a plane for four hours, you could be stuck in an airport or a hotel for a day, or two, awaiting a plane with an empty seat going to your destination.

The occasional horror story gets a lot of attention. But the more newsworthy fact is the extreme rarity of this phenomenon. DOT says each year, about 1,500 flights are stranded on the runway for more than three hours. Sounds like a lot, until you realize that there are some 9.3 million domestic departures annually.

The evil targeted by DOT occurs once for every 6,200 flights. That's not a scandal. It's a miracle.

There is more than a whiff of arrogance in the new regulation. When a reporter asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood what would happen if a plane needed only an extra five minutes to take off, he snorted, "You know as well as I do that five minutes always extends out to 50 minutes and almost always to 5 hours. There's no such thing as five minutes, never, ever." He was not joking.

The DOT rule flows from two presumptions common in Washington: 1) that private businesses have insufficient motivation to satisfy their patrons, and 2) that government regulators are capable of making better operational decisions than the people whose livelihoods are at stake.

Someday, maybe our leaders will figure out that neither is usually true. But before that happens, expect a very long delay.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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