At least two airlines are already sending flights back to the gate if they're caught in tarmac delays approaching three hours, the cut-off point for new fines that take effect on April 29.
US Airways and Continental Airlines both said on Monday that they've started new procedures ahead of the government rules, which require airlines to let passengers off planes after delays of more than three hours. There are exceptions for issues such as safety, but it's not yet clear how often they'll be invoked.
"To protect itself from being fined, US Airways has implemented 'trigger' points to monitor delay times," the carrier said in an employee newsletter. "If a plane is out on the taxiway for two-and-a-half hours, and takeoff isn't imminent, the pilots will make an announcement and return to the gate."
The airline said the new procedure began on Thursday. It also expects more cancellations as crews who return to the gate run up against federal rules limiting how long they can fly.
Continental said that pilots of flights delayed two hours, who don't expect to take off before the three-hour deadline, will "reposition the aircraft at either a remote area or gate, where customers may deplane safely and securely." It said the new procedure began on Thursday.
Other airlines either didn't respond to requests for comment or declined to detail their plans for adapting to the new delay rule.
Continental Airlines Inc. CEO Jeff Smisek has warned that his airline will cancel flights rather than risk big fines. Because of runway construction at John F. Kennedy airport, several big carriers have asked for exemptions to the new rule at New York-area airports. US Airways has asked for an exemption at Philadelphia. The Transportation Department is taking comments on the requests through Friday.
Also on Monday, the Transportation Department said it would delay a new rule requiring airlines to put flight delay data on their Web sites beginning April 29. The airlines, through a trade association, had said that collecting the information and publishing it required extensive work. They now have until June 29 to comply.
David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.