U.S. says airline passengers are free to depart after 3 hours

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In a victory for proponents of passenger rights, the Department of Transportation said Monday it would cap at three hours the length of time a plane can sit on the tarmac during airport delays.

The new policy, which goes in effect in 120 days, also requires that airlines give passengers food and water after two hours of waiting to take off and keep toilets operating. After three hours, the plane has to return to the terminal and let passengers off.

“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.

“It’s about time,” said Vaughn Cordle, chief analyst at AirlinesForecast LLC, noting it will be good for consumers but bad for the airlines.

“It will cost the airlines incrementally because it takes out some of their flexibility,” Cordle said during an interview. “If they have to go back to the gate and deplane, it adds more time to the flight and adds more costs.”

The Air Transport Association, the industry’s lobby group, criticized the move.

“We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience,” said James May, ATA’s chief executive, in a statement.

Fines imposed for violating the policy could add up to millions for the industry.

Recently, the Department of Transportation fined Continental Airlines and affiliate ExpressJet Airlines $175,000 over an incident last August in which 47 passengers on a plane diverted from Minneapolis to Rochester, Minn., because of weather conditions spent hours stranded on the runway — hungry, parched and unable to get off the aircraft.

Over the 2008-2009 winter period, U.S. carriers reported 373 tarmac delays that ran in excess of three hours, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

“It’s going to hit the hub-and-spoke carriers more than the budget airlines. … Network carriers tend to bring all their assets (planes and ground personnel) into the main hubs,” Cordle added. “The point-to-point carriers don’t have all their assets in one place at one time — they’re more spread out.”

Three-hour delays are rare and occur in extreme circumstances, usually during peak travel days during winter operations, which are vulnerable to extreme weather, according to Cordle.

The new rules also prohibit airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights while requiring that they appoint an employee to monitor flight delays, respond to traveler complaints, adopt a customer service plan, audit their compliance, and post flight-delay information on their Web sites.

The change in U.S. policy was sparked by a 2007 incident in which more than 1,000 passengers — on nine different flights operated by JetBlue Airways — were stranded at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport during an ice storm. Some of the planes sat more than 10 hours with no food or water and with overflowing toilets, according to media reports at the time.

(c) 2009, MarketWatch.com Inc. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.