Audit Reports

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Effects of the Tarmac Delay Rule on Flight Cancellations and Delays

Required by the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012; Also requested by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Subcommittee on Aviation, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Project ID: 

Following a series of high-profile instances of passengers held locked inside aircraft during lengthy tarmac delays, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) developed the tarmac delay rule (TDR).  Effective April 29, 2010, the rule renders airlines liable for fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for incidents of domestic flights spending longer than 3 hours on the tarmac.

The Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 directed our office to assess the impact of DOT’s rules on carriers’ decisions to delay or cancel flights. To meet this mandate, the House Aviation Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation requested that we focus specifically on the TDR. In addition, they requested that we review the analysis commissioned by the Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST) on the subject.

We found that the TDR increased cancellation rates during the first 3 years following its implementation (May 2010–April 2013). After that, the TDR did not increase cancellation rates, and cancellation rates behaved as if the TDR had never been imposed—at least through December 2014, which was the end of our period of analysis. We examined two types of flight delays—tarmac and gate delays—and found that the TDR was associated with a reduction in tarmac delays, but displayed no obvious association with changes in gate delays. Lastly, we found that the OST-commissioned analysis of TDR effects contained significant limitations that impact its reliability as a basis for making possible policy decisions.

We made no recommendations in this report, and OST returned no written comments.