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U.S. Considers Wider Tarmac Rule After Virgin Atlantic Incident

The U.S. may force airlines to release passengers on overseas flights that become stranded after a diverted Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. flight renewed demands for additional regulation.

The Transportation Department may expand the rule requiring airlines to let passengers off planes after three hours, or pay fines. “We’re looking at whether the public supports an expansion of the hard deadline,” spokeswoman Olivia Alair said in an e-mail.

Virgin’s flight from London’s Heathrow Airport was diverted to Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut, by weather, the airline said. The 300 passengers were on the grounded plane from about 8:30 p.m. until midnight waiting for immigration inspectors to arrive, airport spokesman John Wallace said yesterday.

International flights are exempt from a rule that took effect April 29, which imposed fines as much as $27,500 for each customer when passengers aren’t released from planes stuck on the ground for more than three hours. Carriers said international routes had too few flights and cancellations to avoid violations would inconvenience passengers.

“Simply because it is a foreign carrier should not exempt that airline from providing for basic needs of its passengers,” Senator Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, said in a statement. “I find it absolutely absurd that these Virgin Atlantic customers were forced to remain on the tarmac, with limited access to food and water.”

The Virgin Atlantic flight should prompt Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to impose a three-hour deadline for overseas travelers, Kate Hanni, executive director of consumer group of Napa, California, said in an interview.

‘Sickens Me’

“It sickens me we could not get international flights included,” Hanni said. “Some of the worst standings we’ve had have been diverted international flights.”

Authorities at Bradley airport refused the airline’s request to unload passengers from the plane while waiting for immigration officers to arrive, which took more than two hours, airline spokesman Greg Dawson said today.

“This is probably a rather unusual circumstance, you don’t usually divert an international flight to those smaller airports,” said Jim Corridore, a Standard & Poor’s equity analyst in New York. “Members of Congress looking for an excuse to ratchet up the pressure could certainly use it if they want to.”

A hard deadline may strand passengers for as long as 24 hours, as carriers are forced to cancel the only daily flight to a foreign destination, said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association trade group, which represents 230 carriers worldwide.

Relief Crews

Complications might result when foreign carriers are forced to fly in relief crews from a distant country, further delaying a flight, Lott said.

“We need to take a close look to see if these rules really protect the passenger,” he said.

A rule that applied to international flights would need government support to ensure U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials were available or on-call at every airport in the U.S. where a flight might get diverted, and that could be costly, said Brett Snyder, a former analyst and manager at UAL Corp.’s United Airlines and America West Airlines.

“People love to view things like this as airlines holding passengers hostage,” said Snyder, now president of the travel blog. “That wasn’t the case here at all. By law, they couldn’t let those people off the plane and just wandering around the airport without Customs.”

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