By John Hughes
(Bloomberg) — U.S. airlines must let passengers off planes stuck on airport tarmacs after three hours, under a new federal rule prompted by consumer complaints.
Airlines also must provide drinking water and snacks such as pretzels after two hours, and they face fines of up to $27,500 a passenger for violations, under the Transportation Department regulation released today and taking effect in April.
"What can be more disruptive to people than to have to sit on an airplane for five, six, seven hours with no explanation?" Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters today. "That is the most irritating, irresponsible way to treat passengers."
There were 1,096 flights stuck on tarmacs for three hours or more in the year ended Sept. 30, out of about 6.5 million scheduled flights, according to government data. Carriers have opposed such a standard, saying it will exacerbate delays.
The rule "will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience," James May, president of the Washington-based Air Transport Association, an airline trade group, said in a statement. The standard "is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible."
AMR Corp.'s American Airlines (AMR) and JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) passengers were stuck on planes for as long as 10 1/2 hours in late 2006 and early 2007, placing such delays in the national spotlight. Continental Airlines Inc. and two regional carriers were fined $175,000 last month for stranding passengers all night on a grounded plane in Rochester, Minnesota, in August.
Safety, Security Exemption
The rule applies to domestic flights only. Carriers would have to set a standard for international flights. Domestic flights also would be exempt if pilots cite safety or security concerns, or if air-traffic controllers determine that returning a plane to the gate would disrupt airport operations
Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org, which pressed for a three-hour standard, called the rule "a Christmas miracle" in an e-mail.
"Airline passengers will not have to wonder if they'll be given the option of getting off of a plane," said Hanni, who formed the Napa, California, group after being stuck on an American Airlines flight during a vacation with her family.
Former American Airlines chief Robert Crandall endorsed a rule in September, saying the government should initially set a four-hour standard and narrow it to three hours in 2011.
In the Rochester incident, 47 passengers on an ExpressJet Holdings Inc. (XJT) 50-seat plane were stuck on the ground for 5 1/2 hours. Continental (CAL), which hired ExpressJet to make the flight, was fined $50,000 by LaHood's department.
ExpressJet was fined $50,000, and Mesaba Airlines, a unit of Atlanta-based Delta (DAL), was assessed $75,000 for its role in giving faulty information to the stranded crew.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved legislation in July that includes a three-hour rule. That legislation, part of a $34.6 billion proposal to fund the Federal Aviation Administration for two years, is pending before a separate Senate panel.
Airlines also could face fines under the rule issued today for regularly scheduling flights that arrive more than 30 minutes late half the time in a month. There were 121 flights that arrived late 70 percent of the time in October, according to department data.
Carriers also will be required to report delay data on their Web sites and keep for two years information on causes of three-hour delays and the steps taken to aid the passengers.
To contact the reporter on this story: John Hughes in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.