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Airlines may have trouble following DOT rules

DOT Monday announced new airline consumer protections, but it’s questionable whether airlines will be physically able to comply with the rules under certain circumstances.

Just in time for the holidays, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood handed U.S. airline passengers a long-awaited present in the form of new regulations governing excessive tarmac delays.

Two proposed airlines passenger rights bills, one in the House and the other in the Senate, have been languishing all year, despite the best efforts of supporters in and outside of government.

But while we’ve been waiting — and waiting — for Congress to act, Secretary LaHood seems to have taken matters into his own hands, causing much celebration among those who have spent long hours, or an entire night, stranded in a cramped airplane seat without working lavatories, air conditioning and water.

No surprise, the new rules, which are expected to kick in next April, have already been denounced by the Air Transport Association, an industry trade group.

But as is the case with any regulation, there are exceptions and loopholes, and it’s questionable whether, even if they wanted to, airlines will be physically able to comply with the new rules under certain circumstances.

For example, if air traffic control advises that an attempt to return to the gate or to deplane passengers will disrupt airport operations, then the airlines will be exempt from compliance. Ditto if an argument can be made that airport security or passenger safety will be compromised.

So let’s say the clock is ticking, and the airline wants to return a plane to the gate. But wait: all the gates are occupied. What then? Well, the passengers can’t just jump down those inflatable slides and walk to the terminal, because that would indeed compromise security and safety. And if the delay is being caused by severe lightning or other dangerous weather conditions, passengers are probably safer inside a plane than walking on an exposed airport tarmac.

Airports need to get involved to make these new rules workable, and they’re just not equipped yet to do so. Surplus gates need to be set aside, and while that’s certainly possible at airports that have experienced traffic cutbacks, it’s not at others. If no gates are available, then airports need to buy people mover buses with mobile stairways to bring passengers from marooned aircraft to the terminal.

The new regulations do have teeth in them, with a possible $27,500 per passenger fine if a plane is delayed on the tarmac for more than three hours. And in addition to addressing tarmac delays, the rules also prohibit airlines from scheduling “chronically delayed flights” and require them to display on their Web sites delay information for each flight. DOT also promises additional passenger protection rules in the future.

But rather than risk paying thousands of dollars in fines, will airlines peremptorily cancel flights that have even a possibility of experiencing severe delays, at airports not equipped to deplane passengers? That seems likely.

And some will argue that rather than punishing airlines for delays, the Obama and past administrations would have done better modernizing the antiquated U.S. air traffic control system, which many industry observers believe is the root cause of most delays in the first place.

Perhaps, at least, they’ll apply any fines they collect toward that long-delayed project.