Extreme tarmac delays drop but don't disappear

One Delta Air Lines flight had a tarmac delay longer than three hours in May, the first full month under a new tarmac delay rule with the potential for stiff penalties.

Federal statistics issued Thursday showed such delays dropped sharply, with five industrywide for the month vs. 34 in May 2009.

Delta's delay came before an Atlanta-Dallas flight on May 28 and exceeded the new federal limits of three hours by two minutes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics for May.

A thunderstorm hit Atlanta that day. Delta spokesman Anthony Black said air traffic control denied a request to return to the gate because the ramp area was closed due to lightning, which made the area unsafe for ground workers.

Four other flights also had tarmac delays exceeding three hours during May. All were operated by United and involved flights  destined for Denver that were diverted to Colorado Springs on May 26.

The DOT is investigating all five of the May violations, spokeswoman Tammy Jones said. The DOT has said it could levy fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for violators. Jones noted the rule includes exceptions for safety or security reasons.

Airlines have said the tarmac delay rule could lead to increased cancellations. The overall flight cancellation rate increased to 1.2 percent of flights in May, up from 0.9 percent a year earlier.

Atlanta-based Delta, its regional subsidiary Comair and Delta Connection carrier Atlantic Southeast Airlines had the three highest rates of tarmac delays of two hours or longer among airlines ranked. .

Delta, with 75.6 percent of its flights on time in May, ranked 16th in on-time performance out of 18 carriers ranked. Comair ranked last.

The release also included a report on Paco the dog, who was lost during a trip on Delta in May. The reason Paco's kennel door opened, leading to the escape, "has not been determined," the report said. .

The Paco incident was one of three airline animal incidents reported in May; the others were a cat lost by American in Dallas and a dog that died on a Continental flight to Costa Rica.