Tarmac troubles: A new rule will punish airlines that punish people

Written by Susan Mannella on .

As they sit on the tarmac waiting for their planes to take off, airline travelers can be forgiven for thinking that if commercial aviation operated Santa's sleigh, the right jolly old elf wouldn't feel so jolly as the reindeer champed at the bit waiting to go.

To the exasperation of thousands, long delays on commercial aircraft have been all too common. As The Associated Press reported, through Oct. 31 this year 864 flights had taxi-out times of three hours or more.

Just last month, the U.S. Department of Transportation levied $175,000 in fines against three carriers for keeping passengers in a cramped and smelly regional jet in Rochester, Minn., for nearly six hours in August.

Enough is enough. That might be the inscription on the gift that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood presented to the nation's travelers last Monday when he announced that domestic airlines must deplane passengers if they are kept on the ground for more than three hours.

Airlines could be fined $27,500 per passenger if they don't comply. The only exceptions would be for safety or security reasons or if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt operations. In addition, airlines must maintain operable lavatories.

For its part, the airline industry predicted more canceled flights and more inconvenience for passengers as the result of the new regulations. Maybe, but they can also do better. And the airlines that are the best at adapting to the new rules -- in other words, that don't inconvenience customers -- are the ones likely to prosper.

As it was, the airline industry had become used to shrugging its shoulders and not seeing tarmac delays as a big problem. The only disappointment with this holiday treat is that it won't go into effect for 120 days.


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