New Airline 3-Hour Tarmac Rule

We all know the difficulties of flying these days: crowded airports, excruciatingly slow security lines, and a complete and utter lack of the kind of perks we used to get – remember hot meals?

Oh, but it can be so much worse. Just ask Len Oxman.

About ten years back, Len was on a Continental flight that sat on the tarmac in Newark. And sat…and sat. For five hours. Len and his fellow passengers could not get off the plane, they wre told since “we could take off at any minute.” Babies cried, and people got hungry. Didn’t matter. They were trapped. “If I’m being taken somewhere against my will,” Len maintained, “that’s kidnapping.” But no one really cared.

Then along came Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who did care, and he essentially told the airlines, no more – no more trapped-on-the-tarmac horror stories. And LaHood pushed through the “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” rule – which is a fancy way of saying, from now on, 3-hours on the tarmac is the limit. Plus, anyone needed medical attention during the 3 hour wait will get it, and the lavatories must be working, and food and drink will be provided after 2 hours have elapsed.

This new rule went into effect April 29, 2010.

The airlines didn’t like it; in fact five of them (JetBlue, Delta American, Continental and US Airways) immediately asked for waivers and were told, “no”. But what about that closure of the main runway at JFK, they persisted – surely that will delay us. The answer was the same.

The airlines response: we may have to cancel some flights, then. Anything rather than breaking the 3-hour rule, because of the steep fines involved: $27,500 per passenger. LaHood remained unmoved.

But what about the possibility of canceled flights? Could it happen? Sure. In fact, in early April of 2010, Continental CEO Jeff Smisek was pretty blunt about that, saying if there’s the slightest danger of getting fined, “We’re going to cancel the flight.”

But here’s something you should know – there’s not a lot of danger of these flights being canceled, simply because planes that sit on the tarmac for hours on end are very rare.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were just 903 domestic flights delayed 3 hours or longer in all of 2009 – and that’s out of a total of 6.4 million flights. So just 0.18% of all flights experienced these dreadful delays.

But say you’re on one of these delayed flights, but it’s getting close to 3 hours, and the captain returns to the gate. That means he’s lost his place in the line for take-off – say, dropping from second in line to number 45 for take-off. For the passengers, that means even more delays.

However, it is worth noting that bad weather is at the root of most tarmac waits – raging blizzards and spectacular thunderstorms – and no one can do anything about that.

So, under the new rule, you go back to the airport (and by the way, the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport has just purchased a $700,000 bus to make the transition from plane to gate a little easier for passengers in these circumstances) – but most passengers say, better the airport than a crowded plane any day, since you can walk around, and maybe buy a snack.

But what if you’re stuck overnight? The new rule has no provisions for obligating the airlines to pay for a hotel or provide a meal voucher, which they normally wouldn’t do during weather delays anyway.

Besides, you’ll probably just hop on a plane the next day, right? Well, that may not work these days; thanks to capacity cuts, there simply aren’t many empty seats any more.

This was made very clear during the April 2010 debacle known to some as The Volcano Ash that Shut Down Europe; it took days for some of those stranded passengers to get back home.

Still, fliers like Len Oxman say, they’re willing to take the risk. Anything’s preferable, says Len, to sitting on another plane for hours and hours – with no end in sight.

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Published: April 30, 2010