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Airline Passengers Get New Bill of Rights

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Will the New Rules Help Fliers?

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.

airplane plane airport tarmac runway travelThe 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 (which you can read in full, or in a much more readable FAQ form):

  • 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.

    airport wait waiting arrivalIt'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 (see a list under point 8 here). The airlines are "under a general obligation to provide adequate services" at smaller airports, but are not legally bound to do so.

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