Most business travelers know someone who has been marooned for hours on the tarmac, running low on water, food, and clean restrooms. It's every road warrior's nightmare to be "tarmacked."
The Department of Transportation's (DOT) new "tarmac rule" (aka the rule on enhancing passenger protections) is supposed to end all that. It may indeed achieve that lofty goal, or it may become another example of good intentions gone awry. We'll see as enforcement of the new rule — which went into effect April 29 — plays out.
One reason to believe the airlines will take the rule seriously is that it imposes huge fines — $27,500 per passenger — on planes that don’t release passengers within three hours.
One thing business travelers need to be aware of: the rule applies only to domestic flights and will not affect international ones. The rule targets U.S. carriers operating routes at large and medium hub U.S. airports. It also applies to both departing and arriving flights.
For departures, the clock starts ticking when the airplane door is shut and the passengers no longer have an opportunity to leave the aircraft.
The genesis of the rule lies with the desire of many fliers for a passenger bill of rights. That movement got a well-publicized boost during the August 2009 stranding of a Continental Express flight from Houston that thunderstorms diverted to Rochester, Minn. Unbelievably, 47 passengers were locked inside the tiny plane overnight — in fact, for nine long hours. The event was replete with crying babies and overused toilets. Ironically, it occurred simply because another airline refused to open its gate to permit passengers to deplane into an airport terminal that had been shut for the evening.
Tellingly, the new rule mandates that once the plane has sat for two hours, airlines must supply stranded passengers with food and something to drink (a granola bar and water is adequate, according to the DOT), and working sanitary facilities.
The tarmac rule has been a long time coming. Basically, the feds ran out of patience long after passengers had. Since the airlines proved unable to police themselves, the government got into the act. Now that the rule is a reality, airlines have been arguing that their providing the capability to deplane passengers after a maximum three-hour wait is not a matter of simply passing a rule. They are correct.
The tarmac rule will require airlines to invest in buses that can pull passengers off planes and ferry them back to the terminal. Or the airlines can collaborate and set aside one of their gates as an emergency deplaning gate — something the carriers are loathe to do, since lost gates represent lost revenue.
Obviously, these steps would require the airports themselves to participate. Yet the airports are not covered by the tarmac rule.
Most industry watchers think it will take the airlines some time to adjust. On the other hand, as John Hughes pointed out in Bloomberg Businessweek, "American, the second-largest U.S. carrier, has adhered to its own four-hour rule." So dialing down to a three-hour time limit has merely called for American to make an adjustment, not implement a whole new program.
Airlines who were less well-prepared have complained that they may be forced to cancel flights rather than risk a chance of a hefty fine. They further argue that having passengers endure a lengthy tarmac wait would be better than having to deal with a flight cancellation that would cause a cascading effect on schedules. Cancellations affect not only the airline making the cancellation, but many airlines and many airports.
It's true. Now that an average of eight out of 10 airline seats are filled on domestic flights, rebooking in the wake of a flight cancellation is becoming a dicey proposition.
George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, observed that as well-intentioned as the rule is, it does contain a couple of loopholes. A pilot doesn’t have to release passengers if he determines there’s a safety or security issue, or if air traffic control tells him that deplaning would disrupt the airport.
That means if there's no empty gate, no available bus, and no open jetway, the pilot can adjudge those conditions as unsafe and continue to hold passengers aboard — without the airline being subject to the massive fines that were intended to stop the practice in the first place.
It seems that until airlines schedules shake out and adjust to the new rule, business travelers would be well-advised to continue to bring aboard their own snacks and water. Just because there is a rule that says you have to be set free from a delayed flight doesn't actually mean you won't get tarmacked.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com