New rules aim to make skies friendlier for airline passengers

April 11, 2010|By Liz F. Kay |

Many airline passengers have grown accustomed to sacrificing amenities and even comfort in their quest for cheaper fares.

But new rules that take effect at the end of April would draw a line in the sand - or tarmac - by requiring that travelers have access to food, water and working bathrooms during extended delays before takeoff.

The enhanced airline passenger protections adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation also require carriers to develop contingency plans to avoid leaving passengers on the runway for more than three hours and that airlines publish historical data about flight delays on their Web sites.

In addition, the department is drafting more rules to further strengthen those protections.

Two airlines - U.S. Airways and Continental - have instituted procedures to send planes back to gates to prevent lengthy tarmac delays.

If carriers don't comply, they could be subject to maximum penalties as high as $27,500 per passenger. The new DOT rules also require airlines to respond to consumer complaints within 60 days and to pay fines for chronically late flights.

Industry groups say the new protections will lead to more canceled flights and more inconvenienced passengers.

"This is a blanket rule. It's very inflexible," said Elizabeth Merida, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, which represents airlines. "The clock starts running when they close the door on an aircraft."

The new protections were heralded by Kate Hanni, a California resident who was stuck on a tarmac for nine hours with her young children and husband in 2006. She has become the voice of a movement and formed the group to organize other frustrated travelers.

"A lot of people can't tolerate sitting without knowing when they're going to get off the ground," Hanni said. "People will be able to predict what their experience is going to be like."

Takeoffs can be delayed for weather, mechanical trouble or congestion on the runways. But airlines have been reluctant to return to the gate for a couple of reasons, she said.

"If they allow you off the plane ... you're going to want your money back," she said. Or you might look for another way to get to your destination, such as another airline.

"The easiest way for them to warehouse you and your cash is to put you on the plane and pull away from the gate and sit you out on the tarmac," she said.

Delays have become such a problem that small-business owners and frequent travelers for work often have to arrive in town a day early to ensure they can make their meetings and appointments, Hanni said. Those passengers deserve better predictability, she said.

Some of the provisions might not take effect as quickly as consumer advocates would like. Some airlines have requested waivers, pointing to runway construction at specific airports, although Hanni's group has appealed. And transportation officials granted a 60-day extension to give carriers more time to publish flight-delay data on their Web sites, Merida said. "It's a programming issue," she said.

Delays are extremely costly to airlines, Merida added.

"Our goal is to get people to their destinations on time and safely," she said.

For more information about the new rules, as well as travel tips and online complaint forms, go to

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