Starting Thursday, airlines face fines for long tarmac waits

Apr 27 2010 - 8:08pm

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(The Associated Press) Planes taxi on a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2008.
(The Associated Press) Planes taxi on a runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in 2008.

DALLAS -- On a rainy winter day soon after Christmas three years ago, Kate Hanni sat on an American Airlines Inc. jet diverted to Austin, Texas. And sat. And sat. The airplane remained parked near the airport gates for hours, but no one could get off. As the hours passed, her impatience grew into anger and outrage -- and eventually into a consumer movement.

On Thursday, the results of that massive schedule disruption on Dec. 29, 2006, will go into effect.

Airlines must begin following a U.S. Department of Transportation rule that threatens fines of up to $27,500 a passenger -- more than $3.7 million on the jet Hanni was stranded on -- if the carriers don't let the customers get off after three hours.

The industry doesn't like the rule and warns that it could have unintended consequences affecting the traveling public.

Hanni is unbowed and unapologetic about her role in forcing airlines to do what she advocated all along -- treat passengers humanely when they are trapped on the airport tarmac.

"We're thrilled with the DOT regulation," said Hanni, a Northern California resident. "It obviously validates our argument from the beginning that airlines don't have to hold people on the ground longer than three hours.

"We also are very excited that the Department of Transportation appears ready to support the rule adamantly. I think we're going to see some fines if we don't see airlines square their schedules pretty quickly," she said.

Evidence of that came last Thursday when the Transportation Department turned down a request from five airlines to be exempted from the rule because of issues at the three New York City-area airports and in Philadelphia.

"Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the department's announcement.

"This is an important consumer protection, and we believe it should take effect as planned," LaHood said.

American, whose delay prompted Hanni to launch her efforts, says it will comply with the regulations.

In the 2006 debacle, thunderstorms rolled over Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, where American operates its largest hub. Dozens of flights were diverted to other airports throughout Texas and neighboring states to wait out the storm.

But the slow-moving line of storms kept hovering over D/FW Airport, forcing American managers to keep pushing back the time when airplanes could arrive at the airport.

American chairman and chief executive Gerard Arpey said American subsequently instituted a four-hour limit on tarmac delays and reworked its operations to better handle "OSOs" -- off-system operations -- like the 2006 incident.

"We've had really, really good compliance with that four-hour rule the past couple of years. In the debate leading up to the DOT's three-hour rule, we lobbied for and argued for a four-hour standard because we felt that would produce a better customer service outcome," Arpey said.

"But we're prepared now to implement the three-hour rule, and we'll use all the tools that we put into place for the four-hour rule," he said. "And I think we'll do a pretty good job with it."

Continental Airlines Inc. chairman Jeff Smisek said his company hasn't had an excessive tarmac delay since August as it has taken steps to handle special situations.

"Sometimes we're hampered by the air traffic control system, which is quite antiquated," he said. "Sometimes we're hampered by weather. But we've got plenty of planning, and we've got the ability to and will, of course, comply with the new regulation."

David Castleveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association of America, said the new rule will cause more cancellations, more missed connections, more mishandled bags and more passengers who won't get to where they wanted to go.

But, Castleveter said, "This is a done deal. This is a rule. We're complying."

However, "there are going to be consequences because no carrier will risk any sort of a fine, whether it's small or large," he said.

"There's a chance they will be caught up in one of these delays, and what they'll do is cancel the flight in advance and in some cases not even go out on the tarmac. Why burn the fuel? Why go out and get in that lineup?" Castleveter said.

Industry officials have been meeting with Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration officials to clarify how the rule will be enforced and whether airlines will be blamed for delays not of their making.

JetBlue Airways Corp., American and Delta Air Lines Inc. had asked the Transportation Department for leeway at New York's Kennedy International Airport, where a reconstruction project has put a major runway out of operation for months.

In addition, Continental asked for an exemption at its East Coast hub in Newark, N.J., and at New York's LaGuardia Airport. US Airways Inc. sought an exemption from the rules for its Philadelphia operation.

Although it turned down all five requests, the department said it "has the ability to take into account the impact of the runway closure and the harm to consumers" when it decides whether to penalize an airline for Kennedy delays.

"We thank the department for recognizing that there are unique challenges at New York's Kennedy and will take that into account when deciding whether to pursue civil penalties," American spokesman Tim Smith said.

The rule makes allowances for special circumstances for safety or security or when air traffic controllers decide that returning to the gate would disrupt airport operations.

The new rules also require airlines to provide snacks and drinking water after a flight sits for two hours.

Hanni was horrified on her fateful flight that, after a while, passengers couldn't get any food, water was in short supply and the toilets were overflowing.

Almost as soon as she got off the airplane, Hanni began organizing an effort to prevent future occurrences. Her Coalition for a Passengers' Bill of Rights has since morphed into Flyers Rights.org and made her a leading spokeswoman for consumer rights for air travelers.

Hanni has persuaded two senators, Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to champion legislation that would put the consumer protections into federal law. Repeatedly, their provisions appeared poised to get final approval in other bills, only to be killed or sidetracked.

She is focusing her efforts now to push the legislation through Congress and to President Barack Obama's desk.

Hanni scoffed at the industry's warnings that passengers will be worse off under the new rules, and recalled her own ordeal as she and her family sat on the American jet for nine hours in Austin.

"How could that be worse, other than dying inside the aircraft?" she said.

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