Say Goodbye to Tarmac Sitting...And That Flight?

Last Updated Apr 29, 2010 10:59 AM EDT

Airlines that make you sit -- and sit and sit -- on the tarmac will have to pay, thanks to new Transportation Department rules which kick in today. U.S. airlines that keep travelers on the plane longer than three hours will owe fines as high as $27,500 per passenger. And they'll have to serve water and snacks after two.

Goodbye to those frightmares, like the one in Rochester, Minn., last year where folks sat on an increasingly smelly and noisy plane all night long, within sight of the gate, unable to eat, breathe fresh air, or escape.

With the new rule, expect more canceled flights, lost luggage, and missed connections, the airlines say. Five firms, led by Jet Blue, tried to get exemptions for planes leaving New York area airports on the theory that they are too congested and wind-buffeted to function with the three-hour limit. But the Feds held firm.

Here's what you need to know about the new rule:

More cancellations are likely. Pilots can turn back to the gate, and several airlines have already told their crews to start back after two or two-and-a-half hours, to avoid those stiff fines. Passengers have to be free to leave the plane, either by getting off on the tarmac or being discharged at the gate, by the time the three hours are up.

You'll have to watch the door. The three-hour clock doesn't start clicking until the plane door is shut, so you could still sit at the gate for hours, with the door open, while the airline "waits for a part" or "switches crews due to workplace rules" or "de-ices and waits for winds to die down." But at least you'll get fresh air.

There's one big loophole. Pilots also have discretion to ignore the rule if they think it's unsafe for passengers to get off on the runway and unsafe to go back to the gate. We'll all have to wait for some test case to see how much leeway the Transportation Department actually allows on that one.

You'll still have to take your chances on Air France and all the other international airlines. They aren't subject to this rule, which affects only domestic carriers. Practically speaking, though, the worst delays have tended to be on smaller, regional planes.

You might want to bring your own peanuts. It's clear that airlines have a very broad definition of 'food' anyway, and the rule isn't very explicit about how much or what they have to serve you at two hours. You'll have to wait until you're cleared of security to buy your own carry-on drinks, but it isn't very hard to bring regular food -- like a salad, a sandwich, or some fruit -- past the metal detectors. Then you'll be prepared for any scenario. Like the one where the flight actually takes off, and has no food for you.

Photo by AaronC on Flickr.
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