Thanksgiving Airline Travel Nightmares

Load factors for this year’s Thanksgiving travel will exceed 85 percent, even though there will actually be fewer travelers, down two percent and lower than the peak volumes in 2006, but seats will be more crowded than ever, because airlines such as Delta and American Airlines are reducing their numbers of destinations or even flying less frequently on popular routes to cut costs.

Watch out for Sunday, Nov. 27 and Monday, Nov. 28 as these two days will be the busiest air-travel days during the Thanksgiving holiday itself, according to insiders and as usual the best day to travel to avoid the crowds is Thanksgiving Day itself when there will be the fewest travelers . But then again what if you want to sped that day with the family? Try to book for early in the morning flights and know that contrary to popular belief, the cheapest fares at Thanksgiving are not going to travelers booking months in advance this year. They will go to those who take advantage of last minute deals.
And there is another reason why it is likely a better choice to try a last minute booking on Thanksgiving morning:

Tarmac delay penalties!

I pity the poor airline passengers. They can’t win. Case in point: the government fines American Airlines $900,000 for keeping planes for hours on an airport tarmac. Hardly a victory for passengers since many analysts say the price for this will be more canceled flights.

Passengers can’t win even under nearly $1 million settlements because on the one hand, the government cracks down on horrible delays for passengers sometimes kept without food or water – not to mention toilet facilities –  for hours on end. But fine-dodging airlines turn around and cancel more flights, causing further passenger delays. Airlines are already regularly cancelling flights to avoid violating the US government’s new three-hour limit on tarmac delays.

JetBlue is the latest airline to face millions of dollars in fines. The airline this week is discussing with federal officials why five of its flights were diverted to Hartford, Conn., when 550 passengers were stuck on the ground for hours during October’s freak northeast snowstorm.
Regulators are under pressure to enforce the tarmac rule, wire services reported.

Air traffic control recordings captured the pilot pleading for help from ground personnel in Hartford to have the Airbus jet with 123 people aboard towed from a remote location to an airport gate.
“Take us anywhere,” he said. “I just got to get some help.” But no help came.

The new rule means cancellations will be on the upswing, according to airline analyst Michael Boyd.
“If there’s a 20 percent chance of this happening, an airline will cancel,” Boyd told the AP.

The DOT’s record fine “may only fuel more debate over whether the government’s get-tough policy is making air travel better or worse for passengers,” said the AP.
That’s putting it mildly since the rule was clearly intended to prevent such happenings but it has had an opposite effect. “An inadvertent and anti-consumer effect,” is how Ken Quinn, a  former FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) attorney puts it.

The fine for airlines violating the new rule is as much as $27,500 per passengers. Up until the recent American Airlines fine, government officials generally had held off fines.
The fine imposed on American Eagle was the largest penalty ever paid by an airline in a consumer protection case not involving civil rights violations. The only other higher fees involved higher fines for violating federal safety regulations.
There’s speculation government was motivated to impose a heavy fine prior to the holiday travel season.

In the case of American Eagle, airline officials had a plan in place that might have avoided the gridlock, but failed to implement it until it was too late, the DOT said.  The new DOT rule requires that after three hours airlines must either return the plane to a gate or provide passengers who wish to leave some way to get off the air aircraft. That can often involve sending passengers to the terminal on buses.
“We think airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly — before, during, and after their flights,” transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a blog posted by his office. “The tarmac delay rule and vigilant enforcement by DOT are critical steps toward ensuring they are.”

LaHood has hailed the three-hour delay rule as a success.
Between May 2010 and April 2011, the first 12 months after the time limit was in effect, airlines reported 20 tarmac delays of more than three hours, none of which was more than four hours long. By comparison, during the 12 months before the rule took effect, airlines had 693 tarmac delays of more than three hours, and 105 of the delays were longer than four hours

But a recent Government Accountability Office report concluded, “The rule appears to be associated with an increased number of cancellations for thousands of additional passengers — far more than DOT initially predicted.”
The rule has since been extended to international flight delays, which are capped at four hours. Apparently, they will be next to face the brunt of the new rule, while the lawmakers still have no clue that it is all a Zero Sum Game, as the consumer not only will suffer the treatment at one time or another, he will also indirectly pay for the imposed fines. Don’t be surprised if airlines come up with yet another fee to recoup these fines; something like “the unexpected cost of doing business fine fee”.