Passenger advocates flying high over tarmac law

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In a move that a major air passenger advocacy group hailed as a “Christmas miracle” in the days leading up to the holiday rush, the United States Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted a new rule that significantly enhances airline passenger protections.

The new DOT rule was announced on Monday, December 21 in the wake of a series of incidents across the country in which flights were delayed on the ground for hours on end. The law, which applies only to domestic flights, prohibits U.S. air carriers from remaining on the tarmac for more than three hours without allowing passengers to deplane and stipulates that airlines must provide food and water to passengers within two hours of a plane being delayed on the tarmac. Additionally, under the law carriers are required to maintain lavatories and provide any necessary medical attention.

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

Kate Hanni, president and founder of, a leading airline passenger advocacy organization, said the new protections were “akin to a Christmas miracle” from the Obama Administration and the DOT.

“This is indeed a wonderful holiday gift and a major victory for any airline passenger who has ever been subjected to an unnecessary tarmac delay and has endured endless hours without food, water or adequate toilet facilities,” Hanni said in a news release.

The DOT noted that it enacted its new law in response to a general increase in airport delays as well as to a series of severe interruptions.

The agency cited one recent instance in which it fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour ground delay in Rochester, MN.

But New York’s runways have not been immune to long delays either. Valentine’s Day 2007 proved to be an infamous day for Jet Blue, when one of its flights sat on a New York runway for 11 hours. Other carries have had similar problems.

Subsequently, Hanni and, along with State Senator Charles Fuschillo of Long Island and Astoria Assemblymember Mike Gianaris, were instrumental in the 2007 passage of a New York Airline Passengers Bill of Rights (APBR), the nation’s first. Signed into law by former Governor Elliot Spitzer in August 2007, the legislation offered protections similar to those under the DOT’s new law.

But the DOT’s ruling, based on a review of public comments issued after a November 2008 proposal, goes beyond New York’s APBR.

In addition to its core protections, the new law prohibits airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights; requires that airlines designate an employee to document the effects of delays and cancellations and respond to consumer complaints; mandates that airlines adopt customer service plans and make domestic flight delay information available on their web sites; and prohibits airlines from retroactively applying changes to their contracts of carriage.

“At long last, airlines will be required to treat passengers like human beings instead of cargo,” said Gianaris, the lead author of New York’s APBR. “It is outrageous that these regulations are necessary at all, but the nation’s airlines made clear they are more concerned about saving a few bucks than providing basic and necessary services to its customers.”

The DOT did allow for some exceptions to its law. They pertain to safety and security or a decision by air traffic control that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. Additionally, U.S. airlines operating international flights departing from or arriving on American soil must specify their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same security exceptions applicable.

The DOT plans to soon begin another round of rulemaking, intended to further strengthen airline passenger protections.