Consumer Rule Limits Airline Tarmac Delays





Consumer Rule Limits Airline Tarmac Delays

By Mike Mitchell
December 22, 2009 - “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” said. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who announced a new rule that significantly strengthens protections afforded to consumers by, among other things, establishing a hard time limit after which U.S. airlines must allow passengers to deplane from domestic flights.

The new rule prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers. With exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.

U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers, with the same exceptions applicable.   Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.   

This rule was adopted in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and also in response to the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems. In one of the most recent tarmac delay incidents, the Department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour ground delay at Rochester, MN.

DOT observed that, beginning in December of 2006 and continuing through the early spring of 2007, weather problems had kept more than a few aircraft sitting for long hours on the tarmac, causing the passengers undue discomfort and inconvenience. DOT observed further that passengers were also being harmed by the high incidence of less extreme flight delays. DOT acknowledged that the industry and interested observers have attributed both the lengthy tarmac waits and many of the other flight delays to a number of factors besides weather, such as capacity and operational constraints.

The rule also:

• Prohibits airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights, subjecting those who do to DOT enforcement action for unfair and deceptive practices; 

• Requires airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints;

• Requires airlines to display on their website flight delay information for each domestic flight they operate;

• Requires airlines to adopt customer service plans and audit their own compliance with their plans; and

• Prohibits airlines from retroactively applying material changes to their contracts of carriage that could have a negative impact on consumers who already have purchased tickets.   


Today’s final rule was adopted following a review of public comments on a proposal issued in November 2008.  The Department also plans to begin another rulemaking designed to further strengthen protections for air travelers.  Among the areas under consideration are: a requirement that airlines submit to the Department for review and approval their contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays; reporting of additional tarmac delay data; disclosure of baggage fees; and strengthening requirements that airline ads disclose the full fare consumers must pay for tickets.   

On November 15, 2007, the Department of Transportation (DOT or Department) issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in Docket DOT-OST-2007-22 entitled “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections.” This ANPRM was published in the Federal Register five days later. See “Department of Transportation, Office of the Secretary, 14 CFR Parts 234, 253, 259, and 399 [Docket No. DOT-OST-2007-0022], RIN No. 2105-AD72, 72 FR 65233 et seq. (November 20, 2007).   

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