Holds are barred, long ones on the tarmac anyway

It appears that it's about time for travelers to bid another adieu, but this time it is a not so fond one to the days of increasingly hungry passengers camped aboard a plane during a ridiculously long ground wait.

The Department of Transportation today gave the final go ahead to implement a federal rule barring airlines from holding a passenger aboard a flight stuck on the tarmac for more than 3 hours on April 29, deciding it cover all domestic flights from Day one.

It rejected requests for a temporary exemption from the new rule from JetBlue, American Airlines, U.S. Airways, Delta Air Lines and Continental Airlines.

Jet Blue wanted a delay because of JFK airport construction and its request prompted Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines to make similar request for that and other New York airports. U.S. Airways sought a delay for Philadelphia because it feared delays in New York would spill over. All the airlines warned without delays they could have to cancel flights. United and Spirit then asked all airlines be treated the same.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the decision yesterday in a statement.

"Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely," he said. "This is an important consumer protection, and we believe it should take effect as planned."

In the statement, the department said the airlines could easily avoid delays by rerouting or rescheduling flights at JFK to allow the airport's other three runways to absorb the extra traffic.
The 3-hour rule was part of new "passenger protection" rules the Obama administration announced following a series of incidents in which passengers were held on planes waiting to take off or land for hours and hours.

The department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in one of the incidents, a nearly six-hour overnight ground delay in letting passengers off at Rochester, Minn.

Under the new rules airlines:

  • Can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger if they don't let passengers get off a domestic flight that is on the tarmac for 3 hours. There is an exception for safety and security reasons or if returning to the terminal would disrupt air operations.
  • After two hours sitting on the tarmac, have to provide food and water to passengers.
  • Must display flight delay information on their websites for every domestic flight they operate.
  • Need to respond "in a timely and substantive fashion" to consumer complaints.

Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, a group that has been pushing for more consumer friendly rules, praised the decision to move forward.

"We are absolutely thrilled. It is good for airline passengers," she said.

She said passengers will finally be assured of getting snacks and water if flights are held.

"It's not going to be steak dinner, but they will be fed something," she said.

Hanni said the rule will also likely result in the three airlines that extensively use JFK -- Jet Blue, Delta and America -- having to pare back the number of flights they have between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m. and between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

"I believe there will be the same number of flights available, but some will be moved to the middle of the day," she said.

A U.S. Airways spokeswoman said the airline's concern was it would be disadvantaged if other carriers won reprieves. She said flights would operate normally. JetBlue said in a statement it would comply but warned that the rule "could have unintended consequences, and result in harming consumers with more delays and cancellations rather than protecting their interests."
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