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Tarmac Delay Rules Take Effect Today

The Department of Transportation's (DOT) long-awaited tarmac delay rules take effect today, after months of back-and-forth debate. In fact, so much has been said about the impact of these regulations that it's probably worth reviewing what they actually entail.

Here are the highlights from the DOT's rules:

  • 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.

So, starting today, planes will be forced to return to the gate if a tarmac delay reaches or approaches the three-hour mark, lest the airline pay a severe penalty.

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As I mentioned above, much has been said about the impact these rules will have on the industry. Airlines have all but guaranteed a nightmare scenario of cancelled flights and displaced passengers. They claim they would rather cancel a flight and deal with the ensuing disorder than pay the hefty tarmac delay fine. The DOT—and passenger-rights advocates—believe the rules will force airlines to create more realistic schedules that reduce the possibility of tarmac delays and provide more flexibility when dealing with delay situations.

Tarmac delays, while inconvenient and often very unpleasant for the individuals involved, are a miniscule problem overall: Just 903 instances last year, a mere 0.18 percent of the 6,450,283 flights recorded by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But regardless of what you think about the rules, they're now the law of the land. I'll keep an eye on a number of factors, including the airline's response during the first big weather disruption (often a catalyst for tarmac delays), as well as any spikes in the number of cancelled flights.

As for you, our readers, please let us know what you think about the rules, and write in with any tarmac delay experiences you have going forward (or share stories from the pre-rules era). Thanks!

Read comments or add your own insight!
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