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Tarmac Delay Nightmares Emerge from Blizzard

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USA Today reports that thousands of passengers spent hours stuck on the tarmac at New York's JFK airport as a result of this past weekend's blizzard. "At least 31 international flights waited more than three hours Monday to Wednesday to get to an open gate," according to USA Today, notably a Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok that got to a gate 12 hours after it landed.

International flights continued to arrive at JFK long after gates were full to capacity, leading many to wonder why the flights departed in the first place, since the situation at JFK was well known. It's not immediately clear who is to blame, but the finger-pointing has already begun. Cathay Pacific, for example, uses gates managed by British Airways, and BA is suggesting Cathay shouldn't have operated the flights that were eventually stranded. "Problems got compounded when Cathay sent those planes to us and there were just not gates available," British Airways spokesman John Lampl told USA Today. But Cathay Pacific spokesman Gus Whitcomb told the paper, "We wouldn't have dispatched them if we didn't believe there were gates."

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Either way, the question now is whether or not the airlines involved will see any penalties. This is the first winter in which the Department of Transportation's (DOT) tarmac delay rules are in effect, which limit tarmac delays to three hours or less and impose stiff fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for violations. However, international carriers are not currently included in the agency's policy, though the DOT's proposed consumer protections rules would force international carriers to draft tarmac delay limits and abide by them. So, unless the international carriers involved violated a stated policy of their own, or the DOT discovers egregious negligence (as it did in the Rochester, Minnesota, overnight tarmac delay), it seems no fines are forthcoming against these international carriers.

More generally, though, this storm is a good test of the DOT's policy when it comes to domestic carriers, assuming stories emerge of long delays on U.S. carriers. The rules include several specific loopholes:

"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."

Something tells me a violent nor'easter qualifies as an exemption.

Still, if airlines made blatantly bad choices, don't be surprised if the DOT hands out a few penalties. But considering the agency hasn't dished out any tarmac delay fines at all since putting the rule in effect, it would have to be a pretty bad choice.

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