With its new regulations, the Transportation Department sent an unequivocal message on the eve of the busy holiday travel season: Don't hold travelers hostage to delayed flights.
Under the new regulations, airlines operating domestic flights will be able only to keep passengers on board for three hours before they must be allowed to disembark a delayed flight. The regulation provides exceptions only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers. Foreign carriers are not covered by the rules.
Airlines will be required to provide food and water for passengers within two hours of a plane being delayed on a tarmac, and to maintain operable lavatories. They must also provide passengers with medical attention when necessary.
From January to June this year, 613 planes were delayed on tarmacs for more than three hours, their passengers kept on board.
Airlines will also be prohibited from scheduling chronically delayed flights. Carriers who fail to comply could face government enforcement action for using unfair or deceptive trade practices.
The new regulations, which were published Monday in the Federal Register, go into effect in 120 days.
"Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
Under the new regulations, airlines would be fined $27,500 per passenger for each violation of the three-hour limit, LaHood said.
LaHood called the new regulations the Obama administration's "passenger bill of rights."
Legislation pending in the Senate would also have imposed a three-hour limit, but the new regulations go even farther, giving passenger rights advocates nearly everything they've been asking for.
Airlines have strongly opposed a hard time limit on tarmac strandings. They say forcing planes to return to gates so that passengers can get off could cause more problems than it cures. They predict more flights will be canceled, further delaying passengers from reaching their destinations.
Last month, the department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour tarmac delay in Rochester, Minn. On Aug. 8, Continental Express Flight 2816 en route to Minneapolis was diverted to Rochester due to thunderstorms. Forty-seven passengers were kept overnight in a cramped plane amid crying babies and a smelly toilet because Mesaba employees refused to open a gate so that they could enter the closed airport terminal.
The case marked the first time the department had fined an airline for actions involving a tarmac delay. Transportation officials made clear the case was a warning to the industry.
Consumer advocates have been pressing the department and Congress for at least a decade to do something extended tarmac delays. However, past efforts to address the problem have fizzled in the face of industry opposition and promises to reform.
Congress and the Clinton administration tried act after a January 1999 blizzard kept Northwest Airlines planes on the ground in Detroit, trapping passengers for seven hours. Some new regulations were put in place but most proposals died, including one that airlines pay passengers who are kept waiting on a runway for more than two hours.
The Bush administration and Congress returned to the issue three years ago after several high-profile strandings.
In December 2006, lightning storms and a tornado warning shut the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, causing American Airlines to divert more than 100 flights and stranding passengers on some planes for as long as nine hours.
Two months later, snow and ice led JetBlue Airways to leave planes full of passengers sitting on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy International Airport for nearly 11 hours.
After those incidents, DOT Inspector General Calvin Scovel recommended that airlines be required to set a limit on the time passengers have to wait out travel delays grounded inside an airplane.
Mary Peters, who was transportation secretary under former President George W. Bush, proposed requiring airlines to have contingency plans for stranded passengers. The idea was that if airlines include these plans in their "contract of carriage" - the fine print on an airline ticket - consumers can hold them responsible in court if they break their promise.
An industry-dominated panel set up by the government debated the matter for 11 months, then issued a report in November 2008 that offered only guidelines for what a model plan should look like.
Neither those guidelines nor Peters' proposed rule contained a specific limit on how long passengers can be kept waiting before being allowed to return to a gate. They were denounced as toothless by consumer advocates.
LaHood has rewritten Peters' proposal, added a firm time-limit and other protections, and made the proposal a final rule.
On the Net:
Department of Transportation www.dot.gov
Air Transport Association www.airlines.org