The Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it will not approve requests, from five airlines, for a temporary exemption to the tarmac delay rules. In a statement, DOT secretary Ray LaHood said “Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely. This is an important consumer protection, and we believe it should take effect as planned.” The decision comes a week before the rules take effect, on April 29.
The five airlines that requested an exemption were JetBlue, Delta, American, Continental, and US Airways. JetBlue, Delta, and American all requested an exemption at New York's JFK airport, which, due to construction, is currently operating without what is normally its busiest runway. Continental asked for a reprieve at nearby Newark International, citing proximity delays from JFK. US Airways made a similar claim in its request for an exemption at Philadelphia.
But the DOT wasn't having it. In its statement, the DOT said it "concluded that airlines could minimize tarmac delays by rerouting or rescheduling flights at JFK to allow the airport’s other three runways to absorb the extra traffic. The Department also noted that it has the ability to take into account the impact of the runway closure and the harm to consumers when deciding whether to pursue enforcement action for failure to comply with the rule and the amount of a fine, if any, to seek as a result of non-compliance."
I think that latter point is worth repeating. JFK is currently hampered by its closed runway, a fact no one, not even the DOT, would reasonably suggest is under any airline's control. The DOT's message, then, is that it expects airlines to handle the inconvenience, but leniency is certainly an option under the circumstances, particularly if weather or other external factors compound the situation. Seems fair to me.