A new rule instituted by the Department of Transportation designed to prohibit airlines from subjecting passengers to lengthy waits on airport ramps takes effect tomorrow and will apply consistently across the entire U.S airline industry. The department refused to grant exemptions to JetBlue, Delta, Continental, American and US Airways, rejecting their arguments that new runway construction at JFK airport rendered their operations more susceptible to interruption. The new rule essentially establishes a three-hour limit for all domestic U.S. airlines. Airlines that break the rule face a fine of $27,500 for each passenger aboard the aircraft.
"Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "This is an important consumer protection, and we believe it should take effect as planned." In denying the requests, the department concluded that airlines could minimize tarmac delays by rerouting or rescheduling flights at JFK to allow the airport's other three runways to absorb the extra traffic. The department also noted that it can take into account the impact of the runway closure and the harm to consumers when deciding whether to pursue enforcement action for failure to comply with the rule and the amount of a fine, if any, to seek as a result of non-compliance.
Airlines and their lobby groups have long contended that such a rule would encourage carriers to cancel flights rather than risk any chance of getting an airplane stuck on a ramp for longer than the three-hour limit. The DOT also rejected that argument. "Everyone knows the rules going in-the passengers and the airlines," said LaHood. "We expect carriers to take steps to avoid tarmac delays and cancellations by adjusting their schedules and providing timely information to passengers," he said. "A little extra planning will minimize disruptions while ensuring that passengers are not trapped aboard airplanes indefinitely."
Under the new rule, U.S. airlines operating domestic flights may not allow an aircraft to remain on the tarmac at large and medium-sized hub airports for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security reasons or if air traffic control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the U.S. must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same exceptions applicable. Carriers must also provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of any tarmac delay and maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.
Although the DOT adopted the rule in response to a series of incidents in which passengers found themselves stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods, one egregious case last year appeared to finally trigger regulatory action. Forty-seven passengers aboard an ExpressJet Embraer ERJ145 bound for Minneapolis from Houston spent six hours on the tarmac in Rochester, Minn., during the early morning of August 10 due to thunderstorms at their planned destination. Some two-and-a-half hours after leaving Houston at 9:30 p.m. on August 9, the 50-seat jet, operating as Continental Express, diverted to Rochester and waited on the ground while the ExpressJet crew pleaded for a bus to deplane the passengers. A local representative of Mesaba Airlines on duty that morning refused to arrange for the bus, however, after incorrectly asserting that the passengers would require additional security screening to enter the terminal and re-board the airplane, even though they would not have left a sterile area. Only when TSA agents returned to their posts at 6:30 a.m. could the passengers finally get off the airplane.
The new consumer rule, published last December:
• Prohibits the largest U.S. airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights, subjecting those that do to DOT enforcement action for unfair and deceptive practices;
• Requires U.S. airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints;
• Requires U.S. airlines to adopt customer service plans and audit their own compliance with their plans; and
• Prohibits U.S. airlines from retroactively applying material changes to their contracts of carriage that could negatively affect consumers who already have purchased tickets.
Finally, beginning at the end of July, airlines will have to display on their Web sites delay information for each domestic flight they operate.
The Department said it plans to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking within the next several months to further strengthen protections for air travelers. The areas under consideration include further requirements pertaining to tarmac delays and requirements relating to disclosure of baggage and other fees, and full-fare advertising.