Imagine, you’ve been sitting in a cramped airline seat for seven hours – long enough to fly from New York to London. Now imagine that the entire time you’ve been sitting there you have not left the ground. That’s what happened to passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight scheduled leave Detroit. And it happened again to passengers on a Delta flight out of New York. Think that’s bad? How about the 11 hour wait on the tarmac for folks on a Jet Blue flight. To make matters worse, no drinking water was available during some of these delays which might have been a good thing as some of the toilets on these planes had also stopped working. Unfortunately, these situations are happening all too often and now, the government is doing something about it.
Photo credit: Creativecommons.org
After years of proposals for a Passenger Bill of Rights, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is doing something about it. As of April 29, 2010 U.S. airlines must change their policies when it comes to tarmac delays and more. In short, the DOT is requiring air carriers to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and to publish those plans on their Web sites. They will also require air carriers to respond to consumer problems and to adopt customer service plans and to publish those plans on their web sites, as well as audit their own compliance with their plans. In addition they will require air carriers to publish information on flight delays on their web sites. The new regulations also deem continued delays on a flight that is chronically late to be unfair and deceptive in violation of 49 U.S.C. 41712.
But wait, there’s more. The Government wants your opinion. We’ll get to that soon.
On December 8, 2009, the DOT issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) which allowed airlines, airports, travel industry associations and the general public to view proposed rules and comment on them. The DOT received 21 comments. Of these, 10 comments were from members and the rest were from consumers and consumer associations. To nobody’s surprise, the airlines, for the most part, thought the proposed rules went too far and the consumers didn’t think the rules went far enough.
The comments submitted to the DOT brought up a variety of issues which concern the traveling public. The DOT listened and is again asking for your input. The Department plans to seek comment on ways to further enhance protections afforded airline passengers in a forthcoming notice of proposed rulemaking by addressing the following areas: (1) Review and approval of contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays; (2) reporting of tarmac delay data; (3) standards for customer service plans; (4) notification to passengers of flight status changes; (5) inflation adjustment for denied boarding compensation; (6) alternative transportation for passengers on canceled flights; (7) opt-out provisions where certain services are pre-selected for consumers at additional costs (e.g., travel insurance, seat selection); (8) contract of carriage venue designation provisions; (9) baggage fees disclosure; (10) full fare advertising; and (11) responses to complaints about charter service.
Some rules have basically been decided. First, an assurance that, for domestic flights, the air carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless the pilot in command determines there is a safety related or security-related impediment to deplaning passengers (e.g. weather, air traffic control, a directive from an appropriate government agency, etc.), or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot in command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations. According to the DOT document, “Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know that there is a reasonable limit and that the limit will be enforced by the Department. We conclude that a three hour time limit is the maximum time after which passengers must be permitted to deplane from domestic flights given the cramped, close conditions on aircraft and the typical scheduled time for these flights. We have not selected a maximum delay time of less than three hours because taxi times of an hour or more are not unusual at certain large airports.”
Second, there is little, if any dispute that passengers stuck on an aircraft during a lengthy tarmac delay deserve to be provided some type of food, potable water, working lavatories, and, if necessary, medical care. The DOT believes a two-hour time limit is a reasonable maximum time after which carriers should ensure that passengers experiencing a tarmac delay are provided food and potable water. Carriers, of course, are free to establish an earlier time at which they will provide these services.
In response to the proposed regulation for airlines to designate an Advocate for Passengers’ Interests located at its system operations center as well as at each airport dispatch center, the National Business Travel Association (NBTA) had what might be considered a surprising comment. NBTA characterizes this proposal as micromanagement of airline customer service and unnecessary to meet the needs of its business travelers. NBTA maintains that an air carrier’s response to cancellations and delays is a key factor by which purchasers make their buying decisions, and opposes a mandate that airlines create new customer service positions at each airport. FlyersRights.org defers to the Department and the airlines to determine the best use of airline manpower to mitigate the effects of flight delays, cancellations and lengthy tarmac delays. As a compromise, the DOT has decided to require carriers to designate an employee to monitor performance of their flights from one location and not at individual airports.
The DOT document is fairly long but worth the read if you travel by air somewhat frequently. And how many times have you been delayed at an airport or stuck on an unmoving airplane and felt completely helpless. Here is your chance to be heard.
Carole has spent 19 years working in a variety of positions in the Travel Industry including cruise ships, hotels, adventure tour guiding, international tour management and corporate meeting mgmt. She has the inside scoop on the business of travel and the best information on business and leisure travel.