Proposed Rules Provide Protection for Airline Passengers


Researchers say the new 3-hour tarmac delay rule hurts airline passengers more than it helps. The new Department of Transportation rule requires airlines to let passengers deplane after waiting 3 hours on the tarmac. Airlines face fines of $27,500 for each passenger stuck on board over three hours.

A study that looked at airline flights in May 2010, the first month the rule took effect, showed that flight cancellations were way up-- 41 percent over last year. At least 140 flights were canceled because of fear of violating the three-hour time limit. It seems that airlines would rather cancel flights than face the threat of paying millions of dollars in fines.

The researchers estimate 2,600 flights will be cancelled each year to avoid violating the rule. That means over 200,000 passengers will wait an average of 17 hours to find another flight. The cancellations could cost the public $3.9 billion over the next 20 years. 

Original Article

The Continental Express Flight 2816 from Houston to Minneapolis was diverted to Rochester due to severe storms. When the flight landed at Rochester International Airport, the 47 passengers were told they couldn’t enter the terminal but had to remain on the plane overnight. The bathrooms stopped working and there was no food or beverages available. Passengers finally deplaned the following morning, ten hours after leaving Houston.

The Aviation Enforcement Office (AEO) of the Department of Transportation (DOT) fined Continental Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines $100,000 for keeping the passengers on the plane overnight. They also fined Mesaba Airlines $75,000, the company that provided ground work for the flight.

All three airlines broke the law that stops unfair practices in air transportation. These fines represent the first-ever penalties for keeping passengers on the plane for an unreasonable amount of time.

Proposed DOT Rules

In December 2009, the DOT proposed five rules that provide greater protection for airline passengers. Under the rules:

  • Airlines would be required to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and incorporate them into their carriage contract with the passenger
  • Airlines would be required to respond to consumer complaints
  • A chronically delayed flight would be declared an unfair and a deceptive trade practice
  • Airlines would be required to publish delay data on their websites
  • Airlines would be required to audit how well they keep to their customer service plans

Airlines opposed the proposed measures on the basis that the regulations are unduly burdensome. For example, many delays are weather-related, which is out of their control.

One of the key rules addresses the problem of lengthy tarmac delays like the Flight 2816 debacle. Under the rule, airlines are required to have a contingency plan making sure adequate water, food, restroom facilities, and medical attention is available if the plane remains on the tarmac beyond an established time period.

If an airline fails to comply this requirement, this would be an unfair and deceptive practice, and the airline would be subject to enforcement action and fined. In addition, if the airline fails to stick to its contingency plan in the event of a tarmac delay, the passengers could sue the airline for breach of contract.

House and Senate Bills

In addition to the DOT’s proposed rules, a bill of rights for airline passengers was introduced by Senator Barbara Boxer and Rep. Mike Thompson. The legislation, called The Airline Passenger Bill of Rights Act of 2009 (PDF), passed both the House and Senate. It takes effect in May 2010.

The new law requires airlines to improve passenger services and protections. Airlines must submit a contingency plan to the Secretary of Transportation or face civil penalties within 60 days.

Tarmac delay rules require airlines to:

  • Three-hour limit on domestic delays on the tarmac - passengers have the option to return to the gate if three hours have elapsed after a flight departure or arriving delay, subject to several exception. International flights have limited options.
  • Adequate onboard provisions - enough food, water, restrooms, comfortable cabin temperature and ventilation, and access to necessary medical treatment upon a departure delay or a substantial arrival delay
  • Fines and punishment - submit a written description of any tarmac delay exceeding three hours, and its resolution, to the Aviation Consumer Protection Office of the Department of Transportation no later than 30 days after the incident
  • Disclosure - public access to an approved plan by including the plan on the air carrier’s website or disseminating the plan by other means, as determined by the Secretary of Transportation

It’s one thing to complain about staying on in an airplane for a long time on Twitter, now there are guidelines for airlines to follow as best they can and for passengers to act on.  

Question For Your Attorney

  • I have a food restriction, allergy or a medical condition. How can I make sure that the airline is prepared for this in case an emergency or delay happens?
  • I was forced to stay on an airplane for a really long time, can I get a refund from the airline? Can I sue the airline?
  • How can I find out if the airline I use has a contingency plan in case of a delay and what it consists of?
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