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DOT Issues Three-Hour Tarmac Delay Rule

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has released rules governing airline tarmac delays and other consumer-protection issues, including chronically delayed flights. The tarmac delay rules are the main event here, and are written as follows:

  • Three-hour limit on domestic tarmac delays: "For domestic flights, the air carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours" unless the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related impediment to deplaning passengers (e.g. weather, air traffic control, a directive from an appropriate government agency, etc.), or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations."
  • Limit (to be determined) on international tarmac delays: "For international flights that depart from or arrive at a U.S. airport, an assurance that the air carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than a set number of hours, as determined by the carrier in its plan, before allowing passengers to deplane, unless the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related reason precluding the aircraft from doing so, or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations."
  • Adequate food, water, and functioning bathrooms: "For all flights, an assurance that the air carrier will provide adequate food and potable water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate (in the case of a departure) or touches down (in the case of an arrival) if the aircraft remains on the tarmac, unless the pilot-in-command determines that safety or security requirements preclude such service" and "for all flights, an assurance of operable lavatory facilities, as well as adequate medical attention if needed, while the aircraft remains on the tarmac."
  • Actual punishment: "Failure to do any of the above would be considered an unfair and deceptive practice ... and [would be] subject to enforcement action, which could result in an order to cease and desist as well as the imposition of civil penalties." Airlines would be fined $27,500 per passenger for each violation of the three-hour limit.

But while these game-changing rules will understandably get all the attention, there are some other noteworthy aspects of the new regulations that consumers should check out:

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Better Delay Monitoring

One new regulation requires airlines to add employees whose primary role is to "monitor the effects on passengers of flight delays, flight cancellations, and lengthy tarmac delays and to have input into decisions such as which flights are cancelled and which are subject to the longest delays."

Improved Complaint Process

Airlines will now be required to post complaint contact information "on carrier websites, on all e-ticket confirmations, and upon request at all airline ticket counters and boarding gates." The new regulations also mandate airlines to "acknowledge receipt of each consumer complaint within 30 days of receiving it and send a substantive response to each complainant within 60 days of receiving it." The DOT defines a "substantive response" as "a response that addresses the specific problems about which the consumer has complained. This type of response often results in a resolution of the complaint."

No More Deceptive Scheduling

Lastly, the new regulations tackle chronically delayed flights. The DOT defines a flight as chronically delayed "if it is operated at least 10 times in a month and arrives more than 30 minutes late (including cancelled flights) more than 50 percent of the time during that period," and "specifies that a flight that remains chronically delayed for more than four consecutive one-month periods is an unfair or deceptive practice ... and subject to enforcement action."

This penalty extends to "unrealistic scheduling," where airlines schedule flights they know will be late. According to the DOT, "A carrier’s practice of publishing schedules that it knows or should know it probably will not achieve can also adversely affect competition, which ultimately redounds to the further detriment of consumers, whose choices in air travel may have been reduced by the carrier’s artifice."

The rules take effect in 120 days.

What it Means for You

There's a lot to digest here, so let's keep it simple: This is a major piece of consumer-protection regulation. The tarmac-delay rules alone represent years of lobbying from both the airlines and consumer protection associations, a period also marked by headline-grabbing tarmac delays and the slow erosion of airline passenger rights.

There is also a lot of uncertainty. Opponents of tarmac delay rules claim such regulations will lead to crowded airports, snarled tarmacs, cancelled flights, and widespread confusion as delayed flights find their way back to the gate. The industry will have to adjust on the fly and find ways to efficiently manage the new restrictions. If things don't go well at first, passengers may feel they got more than they asked for.

But taking a long view, this is a necessary first step toward a better flying experience. And though the rules above took root more than two years ago, it's clear we now have a DOT that is committed to realistic passenger rights and a better airline industry overall. In fact, the DOT said it will soon move on to other airline consumer issues such as baggage fees and full-fare advertising. So even if these rules turn out to be imperfect, it's reasonable to expect they will be improved.

I'd love to hear what you have to say about the DOT's new regulations, so please leave a comment below. Thanks!

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