Are more flights canceled because of tarmac-delay rule?

A really interesting debate is going on between the U.S. Department of Transportation and two airline consultants over whether the federal tarmac-delay rule is leading to more flight cancellations than would be the case without the harsh penalties in the rule. The consultants, who published a study on the issue yesterday, contend that more people have been inconvenienced and delayed by flight cancellations than DOT says. Here's a story with a little more detail on their conclusions.

One thing is quite clear: Very few people are being held on planes on airport tarmacs for hours anymore. It seems to us that airlines should be glad that's the case. Those incidents in the past have made terrific TV news fodder, and made the carriers involved seem insensitive, stupid, venal or worse. The consultants who did this study, by the way, usually work for the airlines.

Airlines certainly appear to be preemptively canceling more flights to avoid violating the tarmac rule. But as I've said before, let's give this rule a little more time -- and perhaps a winter without the snowstorm cancellations we had this past year -- before concluding that it's hurting more than it's helping. I really can't see how we can honestly evaluate what's going on after airlines wiped out hundreds of flights a day last winter whenever severe weather threatened. Did they do that because they've become overly cautious in the face of heavy fines, or have they become smarter and overly cautious when severe weather threatens because preemptive cancellations are ultimately less costly and inconvenience fewer customers than taking a chance that the weather will seriously delay operations?

Let us know what you think.