Monday, December 21, 2009
U.S. Tells Airlines: 3 Hours of Tarmac Delay and Yer Out
The Transportation Department unilaterally imposed rules that would require airlines with airplanes stuck on a tarmac for more than three hours to give passengers the option of getting off the plane.
The action addresses a situation that began festering in late 2006, when thousands of passengers sat stranded, amid deteriorating cabin ventilation and sanitary conditions, and without food, for eight hours or more on hundreds of planes idled on tarmacs by bad weather in and around Texas. Following that came literally years of similar strandings.
Kate Hanni, a San Francisco-area real estate agent, was with her husband and sons on one of those stranded planes in late 2006. Following that event, and entirely on her own, she organized a grassroots movement to push Congress to pass a so-called Passengers Bill of Rights. A key provision of that push was the three-hour rule. Airlines and their amen-chorus in the media first ridiculed the movement, and then as it gained momentum sought to block it at every turn.
The bill -- still pending in Congress as part of the long-delayed legislation to re-authorize FAA funding -- also would require airlines to ensure adequate health and safety provisions on stranded flights, among them working toilets.
Others have sought to ridicule and then co-opt Hanni's movement and push her out of the picture as reforms loomed. I have known Kate Hanni since she first quit her job and rented a cheap hotel room in Washington in the cold winter of 2007 to begin her long push for passengers' rights. Today's reforms by the Transportation Department would not have happened without Hanni's efforts. The Airline Passengers Bill of Rights, by the way, still is part of the pending FAA reauthorization bill, which Congress is expected to take up again early next year.
So Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is known to have been incensed by airlines' failure to firmly address the problem on their own, has lowered the boom even before Congress might act. Here's the Transportation Department statement today:
"WASHINGTON -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced a new rule that significantly strengthens protections afforded to consumers by, among other things, establishing a hard time-limit after which U.S. airlines must allow passengers to deplane from domestic flights.
“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Secretary LaHood said.
The new rule prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same exceptions applicable.
Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.
This rule was adopted in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and also in response to the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems. In one of the most recent tarmac delay incidents, the Department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour ground delay at Rochester, MN.
The rule also:
--Prohibits airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights, subjecting those who do to DOT enforcement action for unfair and deceptive practices;
--Requires airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints;
--Requires airlines to display on their website flight delay information for each domestic flight they operate;
--Requires airlines to adopt customer service plans and audit their own compliance with their plans; and
--Prohibits airlines from retroactively applying material changes to their contracts of carriage that could have a negative impact on consumers who already have purchased tickets.
Today’s final rule was adopted following a review of public comments on a proposal issued in November 2008. The Department also plans to begin another rulemaking designed to further strengthen protections for air travelers. Among the areas under consideration are: a requirement that airlines submit to the Department for review and approval their contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays; reporting of additional tarmac delay data; disclosure of baggage fees; and strengthening requirements that airline ads disclose the full fare consumers must pay for tickets.
The rule goes into effect 120 days after date of publication in the Federal Register. The rule may be obtained on the Internet at www.regulations.gov, docket DOT-OST-2007-0022."
The airlines' main trade group, the Air Transport Association, issued a statement saying that it believes the new rule "will lead to unintended consequences – more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible."