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Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights

Three hours. Under a new federal law that went into effect April 29, 2010, that is the longest you will ever spend stranded on a plane without food, water or the ability simply to get off the plane.

The morning I am writing this, the Department of Transportation put into effect what many travelers and industry folks call an airline passenger rights bill. Among several other new rules, airlines must now provide snacks and “potable” (drinkable) water, as well as a clean lavatory, to passengers who are stranded for more than two hours; passengers stranded for more than three hours must be offered an opportunity to get off the plane. Failure to comply will result in monetary compensation to the affected travelers as well as stiff fines due the government.

The penalties are formidable. With fines set at $27,000 per stranded passenger, a heavily booked 777 with 300 passengers onboard could add up to $8,250,000 — you read that right, $8.25 million (although I believe the fines are capped at around $3 million, still a serious chunk of change). Those kinds of numbers terrify airlines that are both hurting financially and not entirely on top of things logistically.

The rules apply only to domestic flights; international flights are not affected due in part to the DOT’s incomplete control over foreign airport rules and management. Some more components of the legislation:

  • The DOT defines and can apply penalties on chronically late flights (over 30 minutes late more than 50 percent of the time), and deems that offering such flights is unfair and deceptive in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712.
  • Airline Web sites must display flight delay information for all domestic flights (the airlines were given an additional 60 days after April 29 to meet this requirement).
  • Airlines must acknowledge customer complaints within 30 days, and resolve them within 60.
  • Airlines must display all rights and policies with respect to complaints, baggage handling, overbooking and more.
  • U.S. carriers are prohibited from retroactively applying any material amendment to their contracts of carriage that has significant negative implications for consumers

Is This Good Legislation, or Meddling?

Are these kinds of penalties warranted? I think they are — mainly because the airlines have clear rules on how to avoid the penalties: feed us after two hours, let us off after three and make sure the toilets work. They owe it to travelers to be able to adhere to those rules.

Most of us understand that the airlines are struggling financially, and that the logistical challenges of making all this happen are formidable. However, there are no business conditions or logistical challenges that justify regular three-, four-, eight-hour strandings of passengers inside an airplane. This is made all the worse by the fact that airline staff and planes are not equipped during these episodes to deal with basic human needs — which are, in the simplest terms, food, water, oxygen, access to medical attention if needed and some kind of functional plumbing. We’re not talking about opening the bar, as this guy said.

Seriously, not to be glib in the least, but when governments fail to provide food, water and basic services, they usually have some problems staying in business; why not airlines? First-hand reports of these strandings have compared them to imprisonment, hostage-taking and the like, and it’s not an inaccurate comparison.

The really amazing thing here is that airlines consider these strandings part of doing business with them. In fact, they even asked for an exemption to the rules at the JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Philadelphia airports, where traffic delays can be very bad. The exemptions were denied this week; the airlines asked for a special exemption during current construction at JFK, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded in part that the rules do not apply to international flights, and that most JFK flights are international flights. Many experts predict that the airlines will do everything they can to avoid the fines, short of actually improving their behavior in these cases; that they are asking for exemptions at an airport where they think it most likely to happen is not terrifically confidence-inspiring.

Are the airlines really at risk here? Certainly the number of multi-hour strandings is relatively low compared to the number of planes in the air, and given the motivation provided, the airlines and airports should be able to figure out somewhere to put a heavily delayed plane and the people on it so they are not denied basic necessities. Even if they don’t find ways to fix the problem, they will find ways to avoid the penalties, rest assured.

It’s Complicated

Unfortunately, a big part of the problem is that even if the airlines tackle the problem head on, airports are not necessarily equipped to do so. Summer volume at many popular airports far exceeds the traffic the airports actually can accommodate, and it is almost inevitable that we will see an airline trying to deplane passengers, and an airport unable to provide them a place to do so.

The new rules acknowledge this issue, stating that the planes must return to the gate after three hours “barring any safety or airport disruption” concerns. Thus, the new rules will almost definitely inspire some blame game between airlines and airports, which have had a tenuous relationship for some time now.

Additionally, in the strictest sense, the tarmac delay rules apply only to “large and medium-hub airports,” and not to “small and non-hub” airports. The airlines are “under a general obligation to provide adequate services” at smaller airports, but are not legally bound to do so.

Fewer Delays = More Cancellations?

The airlines are certainly no slouches when it comes to finding loopholes, and they are already maneuvering to slip through them — to the detriment of the traveling public, of course. Most specifically, airlines may opt to cancel flights outright rather than risk fines.

These tactics were even threatened during the time the airlines were fighting the legislation, so they are not only planning on it, they are counting on it.

How could this play out? Say your airline knows there are some weather problems on the way to your departure airport, and that clearance to take off may be withheld so that planes are not stuck in the air unable to land. However, the airline also needs the gate at which your plane would be held in order to deplane and load other flights to and from other destinations — so they need to get your plane out of the way. Under the new law, an airline may opt simply to cancel your flight rather than risk boarding the plane, only to have it held on the tarmac awaiting permission to fly.

So instead of being stuck on the tarmac, you are stuck in the airport — where the airline may not face the same fines and payouts. In this case, the airline’s responsibility is the same as with other flight cancellations in accordance with their specific cancellation policy (which is now mandated to be displayed on the carrier’s Web site).

US Airways Execs Predict As Much

At the, a favorite blog of our editor, Brett Snyder reports that US Airways COO Robert Isom acknowledged that “the defense we have is canceling flights.” But CEO Doug Parker dramatically conceded that the airlines got themselves into this mess by not fixing an operational problem, so now they have a legislative problem; “we did it to ourselves,” he said. Read Cranky’s short and interesting report.

What to Expect, What You Can Do

Airline execs predict that this summer will offer the first real challenges for airlines trying to comply with the new rules. If your flight is potentially facing serious departure delays, and you are concerned about a cancellation, think on the following to reduce your exposure.

Understand the new rules. The FAQ linked above is a pretty easy read (and an interesting one if you are a regular traveler, as we assume most of our readers are).

The legislation specifically indicates that you must be allowed to get off the plane at the three-hour mark — so be ready to go if this time approaches.

If your plane does return to the gate for you to deplane, your airline may allow passengers to reboard and restart the itinerary (and clock). Be very aware of what is going to happen if your plane returns to the gate so you are not left behind and you don’t forfeit your rights.

If a flight is almost but not quite ready to leave, airlines have the right to poll passengers as to whether they want to deplane as the three-hour mark approaches (well, sort of — the rules regarding polling and acting on passenger preference are very squishy). Be prepared to make decisions along these lines.

Monitor airport delays more carefully. You can learn about airport delays almost anywhere these days, from airline Web sites to weather reports. If your airport is starting to see considerable delays, you might want to anticipate possible cancellations and plan accordingly.

Use automatic and mobile notification tools to monitor flight status. Airlines and booking sites almost all offer automated flight status update tools, whether accessible by computers, smartphone or regular phone; use these tools so you are not surprised.

As always, you will want to know your rights and (especially) your options when there is a delay of this magnitude. If you get off the plane, how likely are you to get on another one soon? Are there flights at later times or on other airlines that you can take? Research your other options before the day of your flight.

At the very least, we can hope that even delayed planes no longer become instant prisons — but of course not nearly as comfortable or well-provisioned as most prisons. To me, the requirements to provide for some basic human needs are the most heartening parts of the new rules. As much as the airlines protest and even threaten, this is simple stuff — don’t strand people on airplanes for nearly half a day, and feed them if you do. Any airline that can’t do that doesn’t deserve our trust anyway. We will continue to see tarmac strandings, as well as some fines, but hopefully the almost primal and inhumane experiences that seem to bubble up into the news every few months are a thing of the past.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in May 2010.



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