The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) recently reported that the total number of flights that spent five hours or more on the tarmac in 2006 totaled 36, out of 7.2 million US flights that year. This means that only 0.000005 percent of flights experience significant delays.
This is great news, especially after all of the horrendously delayed flights on JetBlue and American Airlines at the beginning of this year.
Too bad the BTS report is BS.
Turns out, BTS does not count planes which have been rerouted to a different airport — these flights are marked as “diverted” — nor those that were eventually cancelled — these being recorded merely as “cancelled.” Moreover, the BTS does not record the total time a plane spends on the tarmac if said plane returns to the gate to later take off.
One such flight was scheduled to fly from San Francisco to Dallas. This flight was redirected to Austin, where it spent an astonishing nine hours on the tarmac before it was able to dock. During this time, passengers tolerated overflowing toilets and a lack of food and water.
According to BTS records, this flight was merely “diverted.”
Such an oversight led passenger Kate Hanni to found the Coalition for an Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, a grassroots organization that is lobbying Congress to federally mandate that all tarmac delays be capped at four hours.
Another pissed off passenger is Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who sits on the House Infrastructure and Transportation Committee. She has introduced a bill requiring BTS to record all tarmac delays on all flights.
However, after all of this terrible PR, the BTS and ATA are pushing for such measures on their own.
For now, it’s almost impossible to determine how many flights are getting delayed on the tarmac. In 2006, there were 120,000 cancelled flights and 16,000 diverted flights. The BTS is currently reviewing how many of these flights experienced significant tarmac delays.
One BTS official is careful to stress, however, the importance of keeping it all in perspective: “Even if the numbers [of reported delays] double, quadruple, or increase tenfold, relative to the 7.2 million departures each year in the United States, the numbers would still be a decimal,” he says.
Just the same: That small percentage is a large number of unhappy customers.