Here it comes, the 3 Hour Rule

The 3 hour rule officially starts on April 29th, this Thursday.  The media is starting to bubble with lots of quotes from spokespeople at various Airlines and many of those quotes are about cancelled flights.  There appear to be about 3 levels of fury in these quotes.  Level 1 isn’t really fury more than it is resigned acceptance and is represented mostly by Southwest and American Airlines (which kind of surprises me). 


Level 2 is what I’ve started thinking of as the “Happy Threat”.   These airlines are announcing in cheery PR tones that they’ll “try hard” but it is likely that lots of flights might get cancelled.  Then there is Level 3 which really isn’t from the PR department so much as the CEO (Can you say Jeff Smisek) who are basically attempting to make it out to be the FAA evil plan to wreak havoc on the airline system.


Here is what I think you’ll see happen on Thursday and Friday.  The sounds of crickets chirping.  This rule is only going to affect a small portion of flights over the course of a year and is likely to only affect a small-ish portion of flights on a day of catastrophic weather.  It is notable that despite a pretty bad winter in the Northeast, the airlines dealt with it much better with proactive measures that, yes, included some cancellations but also included things like encouraging people to rebook and leave earlier and later or postponing their trips.  The airlines did a great job of handling the weather delays this winter and let’s give them a small round of applause. 


Should you be worried?  Nope.  Not right now.  There is no sense in worrying about something that, statistically, is less likely to happen to you than a traffic accident.  Worry when you’re approaching your travel date.  Look at the weather expected from about 3 days out.  If it looks a bit catastrophic in its potential, start looking into your options such as leaving a bit earlier (your airline may be happy to waive change fees to do so), leaving a bit later (why not book on a flight the day after the weather and be the first to have re-scheduled instead of the last?) and monitor the situation a couple of times a day until departure. 


Even if you have no options, don’t panic.  Just because the 3 hour rule is in effect doesn’t mean your flight is getting cancelled.  It DOES NOT MEAN THIS.   The overwhelming chances are that your flight will leave.  This isn’t a rule that governs when you must board and take off.  This rule governs the time it might be taking to transit from the gate to the runway and then takeoff.  3 hours is a *long* time to make that transit. 


In addition, just because you are out there and about to take off but approaching the 3 hour limit doesn’t mean your flight is getting cancelled.  If it is unsafe to return to the gate and disembark people, pilots can continue on.  If air traffic control determines that it is unsafe for your aircraft to leave the line or that it will impact other aircraft too much, they can give a waiver for the 3 hour rule too.  There are plenty of outs. 


Seriously, this isn’t anything to get worked up about as a traveler for 99.5% of the time.  It simply isn’t.  And even if you are in the that 0.5% period, you still have a very small chance of seeing your flight outright cancelled.  If you’re traveling on critical business and you really do need to get out, then watch the weather, check your options and, frankly, I’d suggest consider using the Cranky Concierge as a lifeline in the event you do get a cancellation.


Should you be worried with respect to the NYC area?  Well, JFK does have that runway under construction and just about everyone thought the plans for mitigating against delays were a bit optimistic.  Essentially, the two big players (American and jetBlue) agreed to retain a winter schedule until mid-summer.   A better plan would have been to cut everyone’s slots by some percentage and then tell the airlines to plan a schedule around that.   Adding a bit of safety margin into that by extending it to the end of July or first of August would be smarter still. 


Are there going to be some extra delays and/or cancellations here?  Yes, I think so.  However, I don’t think the primary “cause” of those is going to be the 3 Hour rule.  The primary cause will be an overscheduled airport missing a critical runway and airlines without a plan to realistically deal with that.  The secondary cause may be the 3 hour rule. 


Bottom line:  Avoid departing JFK if you can.  If you can’t, try scheduling for non-peak time departures (such as the morning instead of the afternoon or evening.  Monitor the weather, have a backup plan, set up an account with the Cranky Concierge.  Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the NYC traveler *must* go through JFK to go somewhere.  I suppose there are a few limited circumstances requiring it but I’d look strongly at traveling via La Guardia or Newark instead of JFK when making plans.  


This is *not* a time to be married to the idea of traveling on an airline because you like accruing their miles.   Seriously, are miles that are worth probably no more than $20 for a trip of 1000 miles so important that it takes precedence over everything else?  Is it not better to avoid incurring the expenses that a delay brings such as food, lodging, potentially lost baggage, etc?

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