The government is declaring its rule barring lengthy airport tarmac delays a success after four months of data show few instances of flights getting stuck for more than three hours.
Since the rule went into effect on April 29, there have been only eight planes stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours _ down from 529 in 2009. In August, the most recent month for which statistics are available, there was only one flight stuck that long compared with 66 in August of last year. Cancellations were flat.
"These numbers show that the tarmac delay rule is protecting passengers from being trapped indefinitely aboard an airplane _ with little or no increase in canceled flights," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "With the summer travel season behind us, it appears that the rule is working as planned."
The only flight that was stuck for over three hours in August was United Flight 700 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Washington Dulles on Aug. 5, the Department of Transportation's Bureau of Transportation Statistics said Thursday. It was diverted to Richmond, Va., where it waited on the tarmac for three hours and 20 minutes.
Although the government has yet to fine any airlines who kept passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours, it has fined two airlines for filing paperwork related to tarmac delays that turned out not to be violations. United was fined $12,000; Pinnacle, $10,000.
Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosely said all the violations are still under review.
Along with the steep falloff in delays, U.S. airlines were better overall at getting travelers to their destinations on time in August. The nation's 18 largest airlines reported an on-time rate of 81.7 percent, better than the month before and a year ago.
Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines operated the most on-time flights. Continental Airlines was third in the rankings. Comair, which operates regional flights for Delta Air Lines, had the worst on-time rate, followed by JetBlue Airways and Delta.
Although U.S. airlines improved their on-time performance, passengers continued to file more complaints. The number of complaints in August rose to 1,012 from 768 a year ago and 924 in July. Flight problems, such as cancellations and delays, accounted for about a third of the complaints. Problems with baggage, ticketing and consumer service each accounted for about 20 percent of the complaints.
DOT recently began allowing e-mail complaints directly from their website, which apparently helped increase the number of complaints filed.
Besides tarmac delays of three or more hours, airlines can also be fined for operating flights that are consistently late _ a delay of more than 30 minutes more than half of the time, for four months straight. At the end of August, there were four flights that were chronically delayed for three consecutive months, but none were late for four months or more.
The four flights were operated by SkyWest, ExpressJet and Comair, all of which provide regional flights for bigger airlines.