U.S. Tarmac-Delay Rules Coming for Foreign Airlines

Stranded Overseas Passengers May Find Relief
Heavy equipment clears snow from the tarmac after a major blizzard at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Photographer: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

International airlines may be subject to U.S. tarmac-wait limits in April -- more than three months too late for hundreds of passengers stranded on planes by this week’s snowstorm in New York.

Regulators have no plans to accelerate the rules, proposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation in June, said Olivia Alair, a department spokeswoman.

All of the passengers stranded on the ground at John F. Kennedy International Airport were on international flights, according to airline industry officials. U.S. carriers have been subject to a three-hour limit on tarmac delays since last April, a rule credited with reducing such waits by 98 percent.

“If those international flights knew there was a penalty and were fined the way the domestic airlines are, they wouldn’t have put those people’s lives in peril like they did,” said Kate Hanni, a passengers’ rights advocate for flyersrights.org, based in Napa, California.

Five incoming Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. flights were stranded on the ground for at least four hours on Dec. 29 because no gates were available, the airline said. More than 1,100 people were on board the planes. One was on the tarmac for almost 11 hours. El Al Israel Airlines was among the other carriers that had planes stranded at Kennedy.

Coordinated Action

All U.S. carriers are bound by tarmac regulation, which includes a mandate to coordinate activities between pilots, airlines and dispatchers, said Joseph Miceli, president of the Airline Dispatchers Federation. By law, all parties share joint responsibility for the safety of fliers, he said.

European, Asian and South American carriers don’t have to follow that protocol, he said.

“The lack of joint responsibility can sometimes create communications breakdowns, where you hear of some carrier aircraft sitting on a tarmac for 11 hours,” Miceli said. “There is obviously much work to be done.”

Details of the new rules haven’t been determined, Alair said, so international carriers may not be subject to the same three-hour limit. The exact date they become effective also hasn’t been decided.

The number of U.S. tarmac delays of more than three hours between May and September declined to 12 from 535 in the same period last year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last month. Domestic airlines can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for violations.

Airline’s Responsibility

A Cathay Pacific spokesman said this week that its flights were dispatched under the belief that gates would be available. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty airports, said it was the airline’s responsibility to be sure the flights had gate assignments before departure.

The Transportation Department, in its notice of proposed rulemaking on June 2, acknowledged some airlines’ concerns about where international passengers would go if they were required to get off planes after three-hour waits and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials weren’t on duty. That was the case, at least some of the time, this week.

The department said homeland security officials have advised it that international passengers could be moved from planes to a secure location in an airport terminal.

Getting Passengers Out

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, in its comments on the proposed rule, said its crews would likely reach their maximum hours on duty if passengers had to be cleared from planes after three hours and then let back on. That would leave passengers stranded until the crew got its required rest or a replacement crew could be brought in, it wrote.

The National Air Carrier Association Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based industry group representing 16 independent airlines, told the Transportation Department that not fining international carriers for tarmac delays gives them a competitive advantage over domestic carriers.

The Air Transport Association of America Inc., a trade association based in Washington whose members include Delta Air Lines Inc., wrote that international airlines have fewer flights and limited ability to bring in additional crews. That makes staying on the tarmac without fines acceptable, it wrote in its comments.

The U.S. doesn’t currently track the amount of time international flights spend on the tarmac, said Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association.

“With international flights, the Transportation Department put the cart before the horse,” Lott said. “There is no data out there to determine if this is a systemic problem or is a one-off problem that happened in the storm of the decade.”

Delta, JetBlue Airways Corp., and other U.S. carriers said yesterday they’ve rebooked most of the passengers stranded by the worst December snowstorm to hit New York in six decades.

The disruptions affected the nation’s largest and most congested air travel market during one of the busiest times of the year. Thousands of flights were canceled each day during the three-day storm and aftermath, spokesmen for U.S. airlines have said.

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