Unintended Consequences

The law of unintended consequences has a strange way of winding its way back to biting us in the behind. Congress recently passed a “Bill of Rights” for passengers flying on commercial airliners in the United States. They deemed that any airline keeping passengers on board a flight for longer than three hours before taking off would be subject to huge fines. This sounds great, right? After all, no one wants to be stuck on an airplane for hours on end. Regulators love to regulate, and law makers love to write new laws. However, what sounds beneficial to passengers often has unintended consequences.

At the country’s largest and busiest airports, this law, and the avoidance of its fines, can often cause more problems and delays than if the rule didn’t exist. I was trying to get home to Columbus from JFK one stormy night, and the delays to push back off the gate were mounting up as flight departures were slowed due to the weather. After sitting onboard for around an hour at the gate, we were all told we had to deplane. Once in the terminal, not five minutes passed and we were told to board again. My guess is that Delta was trying to reset the three hour clock and avoid a potential for delay fees.

In the end, we were next for pushback clearance when it was decided to deplane. We lost our place in the departure lineup, and once we were all back on board, it took us almost another hour to take off. If everyone had been able to stay on the plane, we would have departed much sooner. It was frustrating for all the passengers and crew as well.

It seems that a few flights each year experience really long delays, and I know that stinks. However, one size fits all rules end up hurting travelers all year round, when mega delays only happen a few days a year. Logistically, once a flight has pushed off the gate, there isn’t much the airlines can do to get people back off the airplane. Gates are all full and the taxiways are jammed so usually the best solution is just to tough it out and wait.

Maybe we’ll all get lucky and Congress will make it illegal to be stuck in traffic jams for more than an hour, or the state that hasn’t built enough highways and lanes will all pay us each a huge fine. Don’t hold your breath.

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