Mid-Summer and the 3 Hour Rule

A number of airline and aviation bloggers have been writing posts about the 3 Hour Rule since statistics for on-time departures, arrivals, cancellations and delays came out for the first full month under this rule.   The Cranky Flier feels certain that this rule is inconveniencing more people now.  Dan Webb writing Things In The Sky thinks it might be too early to make a final call on the rule.   PlaneBuzz speculates on whether or not the FAA will send a fine to the airlines who exceeded the 3 Hour Rule in that first full month (There were five 3 Hour Rule “violations” in May). 

For readers of this or any other blog on airlines, there are a few things to keep in mind about this rule and the statistics.  First, this rule wasn’t put into place because of statistics.  If statistics had driven the rule making, we wouldn’t have a rule.   The rule was driven by egregious delays that far exceeded 3 hours and it was far more political than fact driven. 

Second, the first month of statistics on this mean absolutely nothing.  Frankly, if you were going to use statistics to judge this rule, I think you would need, at minimum, 24 months of contiguous data at the least.  A 5 year data set would be far better.   It isn’t just airline decisions driving these statistics.  It’s weather, passenger trends, disrupted airport operations (for non-weather related reasons) and other factors.  The variables in play here are far too many to make a judgement based on statistics. 

Third, airline fans tend to favor airlines or, rather, they favor airline operations.  And that subset of airline fans we know as frequent flier freaks are even more favorably disposed to airline operations.  We’re a biased group because we see things from both the inside and outside and we tend to excuse events that appear to occur because of one-time conditions.  We tend to excuse what isn’t in the norm because of conditions that are outside of an airlines’ control.  While we may think we have far more than average knowledge and therefore better equipped to make that judgement on a 3 hour rule, we really aren’t.  We have the same bias that airlines as a whole have.

A politically driven rule generally occurs because of a general public perception, not statistics.  The general public perception, whether its based on fact or fiction, is really the controlling factor and the public perception of these delays is *bad*.   It’s bad because airlines have done nothing to change that perception and its bad because those who are trying to explain these delays are coming off as apologists for airlines rather than as subject matter experts.  There is a disconnect between the airline industry and the public consumer in that industry. 

In many ways, this problem of delays could have been solved by some saavy marketing.  The defensive posture airlines have taken during these events has done them no good and apologizing profusely and promising to “fix it” going forward now sounds hollow because these events continue to happen and airlines continue to often appear to have no clue about the passengers being affected by it.  

Airlines have received a lot of bounty from the public over the past several years.  Special considerations have been granted to the industry over and over, particularly since the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, and the airline industry has not acted very grateful nor very responsive in that same time period.  To the contrary, airlines have generally responded with acts that, to the public, appear overtly hostile to the customer.  The general public, right or wrong on its facts, is now entirely resentful of the entire industry. 

This is much more an airline marketing and PR problem than it is an airline operations problem. 

The rule isn’t going to go away and anyone who thinks there is a chance that it will is enjoying a nice fantasy.  The rule is a consequence of airlines doing a poor job to fix an admittedly tiny problem and then acting officious with anyone challenging their behaviour.  Failure to self regulate and respond *and* communicate during these problems created the rule.  There is a lack of public trust when it comes to airlines and that will take a decade or more to fix.  The best any airline or the industry itself can ever hope to accomplish is to hold off even more restrictive rules in the future and that will only be done by being better public citizens themselves.

Do I think the 3 Hour Rule is a success or failure?  I have no idea.  I would note that, anecdotally, the public isn’t crying out to the news media about being delayed an extra 12 hours because of a 3 Hour Rule cancellation.  Until they do, I am extremely hesitant to declare the 3 Hour Rule a failure.

One Response to “Mid-Summer and the 3 Hour Rule”

  1. Third, airline fans tend to favor airlines or, rather, they favor airline operations.

    No we don’t.

    Well… Not all of us, at any rate.

    Well… Okay… *I* don’t.

    To the contrary, airlines have generally responded with acts that, to the public, appear overtly hostile to the customer.

    Understatement of the Decade, that.

    (are you my air carrier or my proctologist? it’s hard to tell with your fist there…)

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