Image: Watching the boards
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DOT-imposed rules that could result in stiff penalties against airlines that hold passengers on tarmacs for three hours or more will likely result in more flight cancellations.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/29/2010 9:04:22 AM ET 2010-04-29T13:04:22

The three-hour rule alarm clock has gone off.

Starting Thursday, air travelers have something they’ve never had before: regulatory protection against tarmac delays of three hours or longer. Whether that’s good, bad or unnecessary is a matter of opinion, but it already looks like the new rules will offer both more and less than many people have bargained for.

Big fines for bad performance
Announced by the Department of Transportation (DOT) last December, the new rule runs 81 pages and seeks to enhance airline passenger protections on several fronts. It takes effect April 29.

The heart of the regulations deals with extended tarmac delays and mandates that passengers on domestic flights be allowed to disembark after three hours (provided doing so doesn’t create a safety or security issue or interfere with airport operations). The fines for violating the rule are as high as $27,500 per passenger, which works out to $3 million or more for a stranded 737.

According to government statistics, 903 planes with passengers onboard were stuck on the ground for three hours or more last year. Among the most notorious examples — and the fuse that got DOT fired up — was the stranding of an ExpressJet flight in Rochester, Minn., in August. That mishap, which left 47 passengers onboard overnight, resulted in a fine of $175,000.

High-profile incidents aside, however, the number of passengers stranded for three hours or more is exceedingly small, one reason the airline industry opposes a “hard” limit. According to John Meenan, chief operating officer for the Air Transport Association, “just 0.014 percent of flights experienced delays of three hours or more ... that’s one in 7,143 flights.”

Then again, it’s something else entirely if you happen to be on that one flight. As Amy Cohn, associate professor of industrial and operations engineering at the University of Michigan, says, “If you’re one of 200 people who spends an entire night on a plane on the ground, it really doesn’t matter if you’re one in a million.”

Fewer delays, more cancellations?
While extended tarmac delays impact relatively few passengers, the airlines’ efforts to comply with the new rule could affect millions. “If there’s a fine out there and the airlines are in doubt about what’s going to happen, they’ll become exceedingly cautious,” says industry consultant Darryl Jenkins. “We’ll probably see an enormous number of cancellations.”

In fact, pre-emptive cancellations could become standard operating procedure. (During February’s epic storms, many flights were canceled before the snow fell, a move the airlines say facilitated ramping things back up when the weather cleared.) The problem, notes Jenkins, “is that load factors are now so high, it can take a long time to get a seat on another flight.” Slideshow: Awful airlines

“More cancellations?” responds Kate Hanni, who spearheaded the push for tarmac-delay rules as executive director of FlyersRights.org. “They ought to be looking at how to cancel flights when weather’s coming in. They should cancel flights as soon as possible so people’s trips aren’t ruined.”

Of course, the comparative inconvenience of being stuck on a plane for several hours versus delayed for a day or more will always be in the eye of the beholder. “I’m a little claustrophobic and I travel with small kids,” says Cohn. “I’m going to want off that plane. But there are also people who are going to say, ‘I gotta get home; I don’t care how long we sit before we take off.’ ”

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All of which suggests that the implementation of the new rule is more of a beginning than an end. There are the logistical issues of getting planes back to gates, especially at crowded airports, and ancillary issues with baggage, security and international flights (which are currently exempt). And, as the Rochester incident clearly demonstrated, communication — between airlines, airports, FAA, TSA and passengers — needs to be greatly improved.

Making change
More changes are almost certainly coming. At this point, DOT is only requiring that airlines have contingency plans in place. But, says DOT spokesman Bill Mosley, “We’re considering another rule that would require airlines to submit their plans to the Department for review.” The goal, he says, is to issue a proposed rule in June, along with new proposals on better disclosure of baggage fees and total fares. Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

Additionally, supporters of the long-stalled FAA reauthorization bill believe that legislation, if passed, will provide long-term protection that more easily reversed regulatory rules don’t.

In the meantime — and different approaches aside — it should go without saying that nobody likes long delays and everybody agrees the problem has been poorly handled. “There’s no doubt that the airlines are sometimes their own worst enemy,” says Jenkins. “This has been around for a long time and they should have had rules and protocols in place to handle it.”

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

Video: Government bans long tarmac delays

  1. Closed captioning of: Government bans long tarmac delays

    >> of snow today as well.

    >>> now to good news for everyone who flies. starting tomorrow, airlines can no longer keep passengers on planes for hours on end during long delays. nbc 's tom costello is at reagan national airport with the details. tom, good morning to you.

    >> reporter: hi, meredith. these new passenger protection rules are coming just in time for the summer travel season. for years we've been hearing about passengers stuck out on the runway for hours on end. well, flight 2816 was the last straw. it was last august in rochester, minnesota. and yet another passenger nightmare.

    >> there was no food, there was no water. there was no bathroom.

    >> reporter: 47 passengers stuck for six hours overnight on a small continental express regional jet with crying babies and broken toilets. even the pilot pleaded to let her passengers enter the terminal.

    >> we just need to work out some way to get them off.

    >> you just get increasingly upset and bewildered by the lack of competence and the lack of compassion and the lack of consideration for the health and safety of all of us.

    >> reporter: it turns out, flight 2816 was the last straw. tomorrow, new passenger protection rules take effect. after two hours of delays, passengers must be offered clean water , some food, and working on-board toilets. after three hours, airlines must give passengers the option of getting off the plane. the transportation secretary says passengers deserve options.

    >> allow people to get off the plane, go back to the terminal, get off the plane, rebook their flight , go home, stay in the terminal and wait for another flight .

    >> reporter: youtube is now full of passenger horror story videos.

    >> we've had some people vomiting and passing out.

    >> reporter: six, seven, even ten-hour delays. after kate's 13-hour ordeal, she started fighting for a passenger bill of rights . today she's celebrating.

    >> the government finally acknowledged that airline passengers were in pain and that we deserved something better.

    >> reporter: for years the airlines fought against the new rules arguing they could actually lead to worse travel delays and force carriers to cancel more flights. some travel experts agree.

    >> they're going to pull those planes back into the gate and cancel those flights. and with the flights being so heavily booked these days, it is going to take a long time, one, two, maybe three days to get passengers out to their destinations.

    >> reporter: well, the secretary of transportation says the airlines are just going to have to figure it out. if they violate the new rules, they face a fine of $27,500 per passenger. that means a typical 737 to cost the airlines $3.5 million in fines. there are exceptions for air traffic control issues and safety and security as well. meredith, back to you.

    >> tom costello, thank you very much. 7:20. here's matt.

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