Department of Transportation institutes a 3-hour rule


Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced this morning that the Department of Transportation (DoT) has established a “Passenger Bill of Rights.” These new rules cover a number of things, from the amount of time – 3 hours – that passengers can be held on an airplane on the ground before the airline must permit them to deplane to ground service requirements and handling chronically delayed flights.  Failure to comply will expose the airlines to a fine of $27,500 per passenger on board.  The following is the meat of the DoT rule:

The final rule requires that each plan include, at a minimum, the following: (1) an assurance that, 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; (2) 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; (3) 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; (4) for all flights, an assurance of operable lavatory facilities, as well as adequate medical attention if needed, while the aircraft remains on the tarmac; (5) an assurance of sufficient resources to implement the plan; and (6) an assurance that the plan has been coordinated with airport authorities at all medium and large hub airports that the carrier serves, including medium and large hub diversion airports. Failure to do any of the above would be considered an unfair and deceptive practice within the meaning of 49 U.S.C. §41712 and subject to enforcement action, which could result in an order to cease and desist as well as the imposition of civil penalties.

Most interesting to me is that they have chosen to declare that any violation of this rule is “considered an unfair and deceptive practice.”  That is the same rule that the DoT used when announcing fines against Continental, ExpressJet and Delta’s Mesaba subsidiary earlier this year, the first time they issued a fine related to a tarmac stranding event.  Such an approach, while permitting the government to do something, seems to be a bit of a stretch in terms of “unfair and deceptive.”  Still, the rules have now been filed in the Federal Register and will be going into effect 120 days from today, just in time for the Passover holiday travel rush.

The penalties defined above only apply between the carriers and the DoT.  There is still the issue of how passengers will be compensated (or if they should be) in such cases.  The DoT doesn’t specifically answer those questions but they do define the systems by which airlines will be required to hear complaints from customers and what the airlines must do in response.

In this regard, we agree with ATA that we need not require carriers to receive complaints by telephone. In reaching this conclusion, we do not mean to imply that carriers should not have in place some mechanism for resolving consumer problems in real time, and failure to do so may require us to revisit this decision in the future. We also do not see the necessity in requiring carriers to accept complaints by fax. As a result, this rule only requires carriers to provide passengers their email or web-form address and their mailing address.

We have decided to adopt a rule along the lines set forth in the NPRM. The Department believes that 30 days to acknowledge a complaint and 60 days to provide a passenger with a substantive response represent standard practice in the industry and should allow carriers adequate time to investigate and respond appropriately. By “substantive response” we mean a response that addresses the specific problems about which the consumer has complained. This type of response often results in a resolution of the complaint. We are also clarifying that by “complaint” we mean a specific written expression of dissatisfaction concerning a difficulty or problem which the person experienced when using or attempting to use an airline’s services and that contains sufficient information for the carrier to identify the passenger.

So the airlines don’t have to accept complaints via telephone (good for you, US Airways and United Airlines) but they do have to actually respond to them (watch out, Continental) and in a substantive way that actually addresses the problem. This should be good for consumers overall.

Another positive move from this action is that the airlines will be forced to publish not only the generic on-tie percentage of their flights but also the number of severe delays (> 30 minutes) and to highlight if that happens on more than half the monthly operations of a flight. The airlines will also be forced to publish if flights are canceled more than 5% of the time in the previous month.

…[T]he Department views the posting of the percentage of arrivals that were more than 30 minutes late as important because consumers are particularly interested in significant delays as these delays are the kind that are likely to result in missed connections and other serious problems. The Department is also requiring special highlighting of flights if they are late more than 30 minutes of scheduled arrival time more than 50 percent of the time to enable consumers to make more informed travel decisions.

So it is mostly a good thing.  And there is still the great loophole for the airlines, “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.”  There will still be plenty of opportunities for passengers to be stranded on the tarmac.  And if they are then all the DoT will require is that the airline pay a fine to the government; there is still no requirement of compensation or accommodation to the customers for violations.  Such an approach does not seem so great for the passengers on the surface.

I just hope that next time we’re number 4 for takeoff after a 3 hour hold no one turns the plane around and heads back to the gate.  That guarantees a cancelation instead of a 3:15 delay and I know that the latter is worse.  And now that the DoT has addressed this problem maybe they can get back to work at addressing the underlying source of the problem – the antiquated FAA Air Traffic Control system – and help create a system where the flights can actually operate on time rather than needing to worry about punishment for when they don’t.  The ridiculous slot and flow control issues that the FAA and airports have today contribute more to the problems than any airlines’ operational desires.  No airline WANTS to keep passengers out on the tarmac for hours.  But when the system cannot handle the number of flights passing through it then the system has to be considered part of the problem.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

4 Comments

  1. The government unfortunately had no choice but to act. The airlines have been promising to fix the problem of passenger stranding for years, and have not taken substantive action.

    Also, I’m not sure what you have against the concept of slots – it is an effective way to avoid delays. Airlines overschedule banks of flights over airport capacity intentionally and know that not all flights will leave on time, on a good day. Slots work, they avoid overscheduling on normal days.

    On bad days, airlines will now be obligated to have a contingency plan and provide basic services to customers. That’s not a bad thing. It’s not perfect but given the airlines have had something like 10 years to deal with this, and nothing in today’s rule was a surprise, it’s hard to call this a bad move.

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