Gov’t refuses to exempt 5 airlines from rule limiting how long passengers stuck on planes

By Joan Lowy, AP
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gov’t won’t exempt airlines from tarmac time limit

WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday he has turned down requests from five airlines for temporary exemptions to a rule against keeping passengers waiting longer than three hours on airport tarmacs.

The new rule goes into effect April 29. The department has said airlines may be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for each violation.

“Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely,” LaHood said in a statement. “This is an important consumer protection, and we believe it should take effect as planned.”

The provision was part of a new airline passenger protection rule announced by LaHood in December. It prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting a plane to remain on the tarmac at large and medium hub airports for more than three hours without letting passengers get off the plane. Exceptions are allowed only for safety or security reasons or if air traffic control advises the flight’s captain that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.

The rule also requires that passengers be provided with working toilets and, after two hours, food and drinking water.

On March 4, JetBlue Airways asked for an exemption from the rule for its operations at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport until the airport’s main runway, currently closed for construction, reopens on July 1. That request was followed by similar requests from Delta Air Lines and American Airlines for their operations at JFK.

Continental Airlines requested an exemption for its flights at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. US Airways sought an exemption for its operations at Philadelphia International Airport.

The carriers said that without the requested exemptions large numbers of flights will have to be canceled at the New York-area airports, causing even greater inconvenience for passengers.

Congestion in New York has a ripple effect on operations at airports across the country, accounting for a large share of flight delays on any given day.

One reason the exemption requests were turned down was that it concluded that airlines could minimize tarmac delays by rerouting or rescheduling flights at JFK to allow the airport’s other three runways to absorb the extra traffic, the Transportation Department said in a statement.

The department also noted that it has the ability to take into account the impact of the JFK runway closure when deciding whether to fine airlines for not complying with the three-hour rule.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the airline was “prepared to comply with the original ruling.” American spokesman Tim Smith said, “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.”

JetBlue said in a statement that it was disappointed with the department’s decision, but intends to comply.

“A closure of a runway such as the Bay Runway at JFK makes such a dynamic environment all the more challenging, particularly when JFK is forced to operate on a single runway when strong northwest winds prevail,” it said. “This environment, when coupled with the new DOT tarmac delay rule … could have unintended consequences and result in harming consumers with more delays and cancellations rather than protecting their interests.”

AP Airlines Writer Harry Weber in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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