The U.S. Department of Transportation today announced it's getting tough with airlines that keep passengers stuck in planes on airport tarmacs for more than three hours, issuing a "hard time limit" after which carriers must let the passengers off the plane or face fines.
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"I don't know what can be more disruptive to people than to have to sit on the airplane for five, six, seven hours with no explanation for why we're not flying, why we're not going back to the terminal, why we can't have a drink of water, why we can't have some food," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters during a press conference today. "To me that is the most irritating, irresponsible way to treat passengers."
The rules also require airlines to provide food and water to passengers within two hours of a delay, keep the lavatories functional and provide medical attention to passengers who may need it.
Airlines will be slapped with a $27,500 fine per passenger, per violation, according to LaHood.
The Air Transport Association, an industry trade group, said today that airlines would comply with the new rules, but that passengers will pay a price in more cancelled flights.
"In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible," said ATA president and CEO James C. May in a statement.
The new rules are expected to take effect in April 2010.
"The airlines are now going to be watching the clock. They don't want to pay that fine," business travel consultant and Travel Skills Group director Chris McGinnis told ABCNews.com. "We don't know yet whether this three-hour limit is really going to affect their operations that much... but now that they know there's a financial penalty, they'll find a way to make it work."
The agency says carriers will be exempt from the fines if a pilot believes safety or security is at risk or if air traffic controllers advise the pilot not to return to the terminal.
Based on 2007 and 2008 tarmac delay data, the new rule could have a sweeping impact. On average each year, more than 1,500 flights experienced delays of three-hours or more, affecting 114,000 passengers.
DOT's New Rules Would Preempt Congress
The new rules also prohibit airlines from scheduling "chronically delayed flights" and requires them to display on their Web sites flight delay information for each domestic flight they operate.
Sixty flights met the "chronically delayed" definition last year, a DOT spokeswoman told ABC News, and the agency says it will fine airlines for "unfair and deceptive practices" if they don't adjust their schedules and operations to correct the problem.
To be sure, DOT's rules would not apply to every lengthy tarmac delay. An incident at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport this past weekend in which passengers were trapped for eight hours on an Air Jamaica flight would have been exempt from the new rule because it does not apply to international carriers.
Today's announcement effectively preempts passengers' rights legislation that had been under consideration in Congress.
"We think this actually exceeds the kind of legislation that has been introduced in the past. It's a much tougher rule than proposed by the previous administration and goes to our feeling that passengers have rights," said LaHood.
Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, co-authors of the passengers' rights bill, have supported DOT efforts to impose consumer protections, but say legislation is still necessary to hold airlines accountable for meeting standards.
There were 864 flights delayed on runways by three or more hours this year through Oct. 30, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Last month the government took the unprecedented step of fining three airlines a total of $175,000 for their role in stranding 49 passengers -- and two children held on laps -- overnight on a Continental Express plane at Rochester, Minn., on Aug. 8.
ABC News' Brian Hartman contributed to this report.