After a decade of warnings from Congress and unkept promises by airlines to reform, the U.S. Department of Transportation said today it will impose rules intended to ease the discomfort of air travelers in the United States whose planes are stranded on the tarmac.
Beginning in 120 days - late April 2010 - airlines operating domestic U.S. flights will have to let passengers whose planes have sat on the tarmac for at least three hours get off the planes and go back to the airport terminal if they want to, or require the pilot to take the aircraft back to the gate. On flights held on the runway or taxiway for at least two hours, airlines will be required to provide food and water, operable toilets and medical attention if necessary. Carriers in violation of the new rule, announced Dec. 21 by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger.
According to DOT statistics, aan average of 1,500 domestic U.S. flights per year, carrying about 114,000 passengers, have sat on the tarmac for at least three hours, awaiting take-off.
This is a big first step toward a creating a "passengers' bill of rights'' of the type that has been mooted over and over since the late 1990s. In recent years, such notions have drawn bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, most notably from Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat-California) and Senator Olympia Snowe (Republican-Maine).
There are exceptions written into the just-announced rules. If air-traffic controllers think that deplaning passengers or driving the plane back to the gate would interfere with with the safety and security of airport operations, they can waive the rules and keep the plane waiting.
U.S. commercial carriers have long opposed such regulation and punishment, arguing that flight delays and cancellations are caused by congested airspace, an antiquated U.S. air-traffic control system, bad weather and other things beyond their control.
In line with this, James C. May, the tough-talking head of the U.S.'s major airline trade association, the Air Transport Association, issued this terse statement:
"We will comply with the new rule, even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences - more cancelled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible. Lengthy delays benefit no one.''
The airlines are not wholly wrong. Many things contribute to flight delays and cancellations. Moreover, the new rules still leave a number of wrinkles that need to be ironed out.
Supporters of stricter rules recognize this, but they argue that years of debate and delay in rectifying delays is enough.
Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, backs the rules change while allowing it will take time to make it work: "All passengers will benefit from the requirement that airlines must provide food, water, operable lavatories and medical attention as needed.''
Even so, Mitchell notes that "it simply will not work at the three New York City area airports, and other over-scheduled major hubs, unless incumbent airlines rationalize and de-peak their schedules and operations. Each airline will have to look at their entire system and restructure or they will violate the new rule virtually every day.''
Not only the airlines, but also DOT, is getting advice from U.S. aviation-watchers, such as the Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney:
"In addition to forcing airlines to live within a three-hour cap, the DOT needs to put air-traffic controll procedures (in place) to help airlines deplane passengers without major distruption or penalty. Controllers need to be able to move planes around to get stranded planes out of a conga line of jets if necessary.'' Moreover, he wrote, "Work rules for pilots need to be clear so that a crew that returns to a gate doesn't simply time-out because it returned to a gate. And airlines need to come up with busing plans, with the help of airports and the Federal Aviation Administration, so that passengers who want off a jet can get off without further delaying the people on the plane who still want to go.''
The upshot: It's going to take a while to solve this problem, and it may get worse (shudder!) before it gets better. Still, all this attention - not to mention the threat of fines that could run into the millions - will concentrate the minds of airline and airport executives.