The plane is stuck on the tarmac, waiting to take off, and you're trapped with screaming babies, miserable fellow passengers, no food or water and a stench wafting from the toilets. Seven, eight or even nine hours pass with no hint of when the flight will leave -- and no chance for passengers to disembark. Many passengers have faced this nightmare, but the Transportation Department hopes it will end with new rules prohibiting airlines from keeping their customers trapped for longer than three hours.
Under the new rules, which take effect today, airlines that pass the three-hour limit face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger. Airplanes must now return to the gate and let passengers get off before three hours have passed. The rules also require carriers to provide trapped passengers with food, water and access to the bathroom no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate. Safety and security clauses may, in exceptional cases, let airlines bypass the rules.
The rules grew out of countless horror stories in which passengers were left on planes parked on the tarmac for up to nine hours without food or water, and with no hope of reaching their destination.
Airline Voucher Doesn't Cut It
Kate Hanni knows that hopeless feeling all too well. In 2006, she was trapped for nine hours on an American Airlines flight sitting on the tarmac in Austin.
"I felt helpless and angry, and didn't understand why we couldn't just get off the plane," Hanni told DailyFinance on the eve of the new law's inception. "My kids and I didn't eat for 13 hours, and people were crying and passing out. You can't imagine how horrible it was."
Hanni turned her anger into action. Following the incident, she started a grassroots lobbying group called Flyersrights.org, which helped get the transportation department to move forward with the regulations as part of the "Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights."
"This rule is groundbreaking in getting the airlines to actually consider their customers who are stuck inside their planes," Hanni says. Out of principal, she and her family refuse to cash in the $500 vouchers American Airlines sent her family. They never plan to board an American Airlines plane again.
Airlines Fought the New Rules
The airline industry fought the tarmac rules from the beginning, arguing that they will create even more delays and cancellations. With the new rules, airlines say they will cancel more delayed flights rather than pay the potentially million-dollar fines. The airlines estimate that in New York alone, scrapped flights could soar by 15%.
This week, however, the airline trade association took a more conciliatory tone. "The rules are going into effect, and our carriers have had some time to get used to the idea of operating within this new reality," says Elizabeth Merida, ATA spokeswoman.
Five airlines – JetBlue (JBLU), Delta Air Lines (DAL), American Airlines (AMR), Continental Airlines (CAL) and US Airways (LCC) – this month requested temporary exemptions, citing construction at their hub airports since the rule was announced in December. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rejected those requests.
Could Rules Result in More Delays?
JetBlue says the closing of a runway at JFK would make it too difficult to comply with the new rules, particularly given that the airport has a history of getting buffeted by winds. This environment, coupled with the new tarmac delay rule, could have unintended consequences and "result in harming consumers with more delays and cancellations rather than protecting their interests," the airline says.
LaHood apparently doesn't buy it. This week, he reaffirmed his agency's plans to strictly enforce the rules and said his agency will actively pursue fines against airlines that break the rules.
"Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely," LaHood said in a statement. Airlines should reschedule or reroute flights to get around the delays, he added.
Agony of Nine-Hour Delay Pays Off
Passengers' stories helped convince lawmakers and regulators that these rules were necessary. One such passenger was Link Christin, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, who testified in Washington D.C. about his experience.
Christin says he and 46 other passengers were stuck waiting aboard an ExpressJet Airlines flight last year for nine hours as they choked on the aroma of overused toilets. The airline kept pushing the takeoff due to bad weather, and wouldn't let passengers deplane even though the gate was still close enough to see from the plane. The airlines said that accommodations at the airport were not available.
Christin's testimony helped sway some legislators and regulators, who were on the fence, that rules were needed. "Our flight was the catalyst for getting something done after 10 years of discussions," Christin says. "It certainly was a terrible experience, but I like the fact that now it means that hundreds, or even thousands of passengers every day will not have to go through the same thing."
New Airline Rules Give Delayed Passengers New Rights