New US Flight Rules

The American federal government is about to take a larger role in protecting airline passengers and it is starting with a new rule allowing travelers to get off any plane which has been stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours.

Even that rule has been too long in coming into fruition. Passenger advocates have long wanted this and worked for it; why it isn’t already reality everywhere is incomprehensible. It is inhumane to be left sitting on the often overheated runway, without benefit of enough new air and properly scheduled food and water. It would have been better set at delays of 2 hours, as 3 hour delays are increasingly rare and 2 hours is beyond a human limit, in my opinion.

Other rules adopted recently by the US Transportation Department signal a shift from a grass-roots fight for passenger rights to an era of stronger government-enforced consumer protections. These rules take effect April 29, 2010.

Other policies may affect far more travelers in beneficial ways before purchasing tickets. One rule requires more disclosure about airline delays before a ticket purchase so customers can avoid flights that perform poorly. Marketplace pressure could provide an incentive for the industry to address the causes of delays, or the route will likely perish. Arriving 30 minutes late will mean the flight shows up as inadequate. Highlighting flights that have arrived more than a half hour late more than half the time will alert consumers. Airlines will also have to post their cancellation rate for any flight which has been canceled more than 5 percent of the time.

Airlines which continue to operate a chronically delayed flight will be engaging in “an unfair and deceptive practice,” and they will be subject to regulatory penalties.

Airlines will have to publish consumer contact information for complaints on their Web sites and on all e-ticket confirmations.

For delayed planes, airlines will have to provide food, drinking water, working lavatories and medical attention.

JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have sought a separate extension on the tarmac delay provisions for their operations at Kennedy Airport in New York, arguing that the closing of the main runway there until July 1 for resurfacing was likely to worsen delays.

Continental Airlines then joined in by asking for an extension for their flights at Newark Liberty International and La Guardia Airports, saying the runway’s closing would also worsen delays at those airports because they share airspace.

Those requests were still under review. Airlines would be fined $27,500 for each passenger — millions of dollars for a large plane — if they violated the three-hour tarmac delay rule. This is big-time power-play on behalf of the flying public, who until now has been at the airline’s mercy.

That’s the maximum fine for all aviation consumer-type violations — but it’s rarely assessed. Yet the hammer is there!

There is an aviation consumer protection Web site, airconsumer.dot.gov to make it easier for passengers to file complaints.

Spring and summer thunderstorms cause the worst long tarmac delays.

There were 196 tarmac delays of three hours or more at Kennedy in 2009. But there were 713 tarmac delays of two to three hours at Kennedy, including 90 in the last quarter of 2009. The runway closing seems to be impacting delays which could tip them over into violations.

Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org has fought for the tarmac rule since she was stuck on a plane for more than nine hours in 2006. She says Kennedy Airport should not be exempted.

A Congressional law is permanent and Ms. Hanni is working for that rather than just rules.

Thanks for the hard work!

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