‘Christmas miracle?’ DOT promises big fines for long tarmac delays
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Efforts by U.S. airlines to fend off so-called passenger-rights legislation have failed. USA TODAY writes “passenger-rights advocates won a major victory Monday when the Transportation Department announced a rule to let passengers stuck inside stranded planes disembark after three hours. The rule, which will take effect in late April and applies only to domestic flights, prohibits airlines from letting an aircraft remain on an airport tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers. Exceptions are allowed for safety or security, or when air-traffic controllers notify a pilot in command that returning to a passenger terminal would disrupt airport operations.”

“Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the three-hour limit and other new regulations are meant to send an unequivocal message to airlines not to hold passengers hostage on stuck planes,” The Associated Press writes. “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood says in a press release. Reuters notes “the regulation would take effect just at the start of the spring and summer travel season, the worst for delays.”

And the DOT’s new rules come with enforcement teeth. AP says “airlines could be fined $27,500 per passenger for each violation of the three-hour limit.” Dow Jones Newswires puts that in perspective, writing those fines are “far higher than any penalty so far imposed, and a move that could wipe out industry earnings. Currently, the Transportation Department issues fines for tarmac delays on case- by-case basis.”

The Chicago Tribune says “the new measure is tougher than many in the aviation industry expected and represents a significant victory for passenger-rights advocates, analysts said.” USA TODAY adds “the rule came as a pleasant surprise to consumer advocates who had grown frustrated that a bill in Congress to help stuck passengers was stalled.” Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, tells USA TODAY: “We have achieved our near-term goals of a mandatory three-hour rule, and it’s akin to a Christmas miracle.”

On other details regarding the new rule, AP says “the regulations apply to domestic flights. 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. Foreign carriers do not fly between two U.S. cities and are not covered by the rules.” Foreign flights may eventually be covered by the regulations as well. “This is the beginning,” LaHood is quoted as saying by the Toronto Star. “We think we owe it to passengers to really look out for them.”