Tarmac Delays and Airline Passenger Rights

New federal rules limit tarmac delay times and spell out airlines' obligations to passengers.

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Airline passengers who haven't experienced it firsthand have heard the horror stories. A plane has taxied away from the gate, but hasn't been cleared for takeoff or has landed, but not yet reached the terminal. But bad weather, a mechanical issue, or some arcane airline regulation keeps the flight parked on the tarmac and the passengers in their seats for hours. These delays often involve shortages of food, water, fresh air, and adequate toilet facilities -- not to mention the dwindling patience of the passengers and flight crew.

New rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation promise some relief from tarmac delays and protect passengers' rights. The new regulations set limits on the amount of time airlines can keep passengers on board a delayed domestic flight and spell out what airlines must provide within two hours of a tarmac delay to make passengers as comfortable as possible. Hefty fines will be imposed on airlines who don't comply. Read on to learn more about tarmac delays and the new rules.

(For more information about your rights as an air traveler, check out Nolo's Air Travel and Airline Passenger Rights FAQ.)

Tarmac Delays -- How Big Is the Problem?

Lengthy tarmac delay incidents seem to have peaked in the summer of 2009 (June through August), when over 500 delays of at least three hours were reported, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. One incident in particular got a lot of media attention: in August 2009, 47 passengers spent almost six hours -- longer than it takes to fly across the U.S. -- sitting onboard a plane that was parked on the tarmac of Rochester International Airport in Minnesota.

It's a problem that won't go away -- a look at Bureau of Transportation Statistics numbers shows that 2010 was on pace for hundreds of three-hour-plus tarmac delays, at least before the new rules kicked in.

New Rules Protect Airline Passengers

New U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on tarmac delays went into effect in late April 2010. So how do the new rules protect air passengers? Here are some highlights:

  • Airlines must return planes to the gate and let passengers off any time a flight is sitting on the tarmac for three hours.
  • Airlines must provide passengers with adequate food and water within the first two hours of any tarmac delay.
  • Adequate toilet facilities must be maintained and made available to passengers during the delay.
  • Airlines must designate one employee to monitor flight delays and cancellations, respond to passenger complaints, and instruct passengers on the complaint filing process.
  • Airlines must post and maintain updated flight delay data on their websites -- including information on flights that are frequently delayed -- for each domestic flight they operate.

Not surprisingly, there are exceptions to these requirements. Most notably, the three-hour deplaning rule won't be enforced when passenger safety and security are at risk or if the plane's return to the gate would cause a major disruption of airport operations.

Punishment for Airlines Who Violate the Tarmac Delay Rules

Airlines that defy the new tarmac delay rules can be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger on board the affected flight. With commercial jets routinely carrying over 200 passengers these days, that means failure to follow the new tarmac delay rules could cost an airline more than $5 million in fines for a single flight.

Critics of the new tarmac delay rules warn that airlines are likely to cancel more flights, rather than risk incurring large fines resulting from delays. There is also the fear that airlines will pass on to consumers (via higher ticket prices) any increased costs, such as fines or higher operating expenses, resulting from the new rules. 

Proponents of the new regulations say it's high time that air travelers are treated less like cargo and more like people and for airlines to stop over scheduling flights, especially those that are chronically delayed.

Tarmac Delays -- Take Action

If you're an air traveler, the new tarmac delay rules don't just impact what happens when you're onboard a flight that's stuck at the gate. The new rules can also help you avoid running into tarmac delay problems in the first place. Since airlines must now post flight delay information on their websites for every domestic flight, you can do a little research before you book a flight. Compare delay trends flight-by-flight (and airline by airline) to lessen your chances of a lengthy delay.

If you are on board a flight that got stranded on the tarmac, and you think the airline didn't live up to its obligations under the new tarmac delay rules, make your voice heard. Call the airline or check their website to get information on filing a formal complaint. To learn more about the new federal tarmac delay rules, check out these FAQs on http://airconsumer.dot.gov/, the official site of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

by: , J.D.

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