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.

By Travel writer contributor
updated 4/29/2010 9:06:01 AM ET 2010-04-29T13:06:01

It’s simply being called “the three-hour rule.”

Indeed, the Department of Transportation’s new rule that took effect Thursday promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.

But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly and require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.

Here are some highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.

Make, share and stick to plans
Let’s start with that three-hour rule. And the two-hour rule.

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay. After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”

These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.

Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.

Curious about what the contingency plans spell out? DOT requires each airline to post them online, either as part of the contract of carriage or separately on its Web site. During this summer’s thunderstorm season or during a bout of snowstorms next winter, you might want to print out your carrier’s contingency plan and bring it with you.

Ultimately, DOT decided to exempt international flights operated by U.S. carriers from the three-hour rule. Instead, it ruled that as long as the situation is addressed in a posted plan, an airline may set its own tarmac delay time limits.

When shopping for non-domestic flights, international travelers should now compare contingency plans along with fares.

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No more ignoring customer complaints
Have a grievance about an airline experience? Who doesn’t?

Some airlines make it difficult for a customer to figure out how to file complaints, while others respond to complaints, if at all, with an automated “thanks for your comment” message. Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

DOT wants that to change. Airlines aren’t being required to accept complaints by phone, but new rules require carriers to post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates.

Additionally, airlines must acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.

Not sure you sent your complaint to the right department? According to the DOT rules, “airlines will be required to acknowledge and respond to all such complaints even if a passenger does not submit it directly to the carrier’s customer relations department.”

Truth in scheduling
Passengers shopping online for a plane ticket must now be shown detailed and timely information about a flight’s delay and cancellation history — not after a search is completed and when a credit card payment is due. Slideshow: Awful airlines

For flights that are routinely or chronically delayed, DOT will require airlines to highlight them in their schedules so travelers will be alerted to the probability of a delay.

According to the rule, “by providing flight delay data to consumers at an earlier stage, they can choose during the browsing/shopping phase whether or not to abandon consideration of a given flight that is canceled regularly or has a high percentage of delays longer than 30 minutes.”

What’s next?
You can read more details about the provisions of the DOT’s new rules here. Decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.

Scheduled to take effect April 29, DOT has pushed back some requirements for airlines to post flight-delay information until July. Several airlines have unsuccessfully sought exemptions from tarmac-delay rules at the New York area and Philadelphia airports to accommodate a runway closure at JFK.

And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.

For example, LaHood eventually wants to require each airline to submit its contingency plans to DOT for approval and review. He also would like to see airlines report additional tarmac delay data and disclose more information about baggage fees.

Meantime, travelers shouldn’t expect the vexing issues surrounding modern travels to miraculously disappear once DOT rules take hold.

It may help, but it remains a good idea to arrive at the airport well-rested, well-prepared and with a hefty supply of patience and good humor.

Harriet Baskas is a frequent contributor to, authors the “Stuck at the Airport” blog and is a columnist for can follow her on Twitter.

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