New Tarmac Rule Limits Time Stuck on Airplanes: Will it Work?

Will the new airport rule protect passengers or cause more headaches?

March 30, 2010, 8:07 AM

April 28, 2010 — -- Have you ever been the victim of an airline "crime"? Len Oxman believes he has. Kind of.

Oxman, an Orlando-area business owner, says his memorably miserable experience happened about a decade ago, when he and his fellow passengers were trapped on the tarmac at Newark for five hours on a weather-delayed Continental plane and could not leave.

"If I'm being taken somewhere against my will," he said, "that's kidnapping."

Maybe that's a little strong, but his complaint, and those of countless others who've been trapped on the tarmac, reached the ear of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who more or less said, "Okay, enough!"

And as a result, starting Thursday, airlines cannot keep passengers stuck on planes without going anywhere for longer than three hours.

You'd better believe some of the airlines immediately started screaming about this; JetBlue, Delta and others said, "What about JFK?" They insisted they'd need waivers from the rule since the main runway at Kennedy Airport in New York is closed for the next few months, and delays will be inevitable.

LaHood's response: Too bad. Then he told them to do a better job of rescheduling and/or rerouting flights. "Passengers on flights delayed on the tarmac have a right to know they will not be held aboard a plane indefinitely," he said.

Ah, but will the rule wind up victimizing passengers in other ways?

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The president of the Air Travelers Association has been quoted as saying, "The misery index for airline passengers is definitely going to go up." Huh? But…it will keep us from being trapped on planes, right?

New Tarmac Rules Limit Time on Planes

And when you're stuck on an aircraft with, say, no food or drink, screaming babies who need to be changed, and overflowing lavatories (oh, it's happened) what could be worse?

How about if the plane loses its place in line by returning to the gate just before the three hour limit -- meaning that when everyone gets back on board, the aircraft is now number 25 for take-off, or higher?

That's one scenario, and don't expect the airlines to risk breaking the rule, even if it's clear an aircraft would take off after an on-tarmac wait of maybe three hours and fifteen minutes. They won't do it because the penalties for breaking the rule are steep: $27,500. That's the fine, per passenger.

Last month, the CEO of Continental, Jeff Smisek, said his airline won't pay those fines: "Here's what we're going to do," said Smisek, "We're going to cancel the flight."

Well, maybe it won't come to that. After all, these nightmare flights we're talking about really are pretty rare; in 2009, they accounted for about 1 in 7,000 flights. Weather was to blame for most of them, and not just snow, either; have you ever been caught waiting to get out of Dallas-Ft. Worth during one of their spectacular summer thunderstorms?

Nothing can be done about the weather, but are you better off if your aircraft loses its place in line and your delay gets worse? Some people say yes: being able to stand up and walk through a gate area, they say, is preferable to the "sit-down lock-down" on a jet delayed on the tarmac.

But what if the three hour rule means you're stuck in the airport overnight? Will the airline pick up your food and hotel bill? Probably not -- not if the delay is weather-related, since the airlines get a pass in such situations ("force majeure" is the standard explanation, which is from the French for "superior force," and it's a standard contractual clause meaning something beyond one's control).

Will New Government Rules Cause More Airline Delays, Cancelations?

Well then, you'll just have to get a flight out the next day. Oh, wait a minute; as we all know by now, the airlines have been cutting capacity for more than a year, whittling away the number of seats to try to get all of them filled. Which means, if your flight is cancelled, how are you going to find room on "the next flight out"?

The perfect example of just such a mess: the recent shutdown of European airspace because of ash from that volcano in Iceland, and carriers' continuing difficulties in getting all those stranded passengers home.

So how is this three hour rule going to play out? Will it be a "careful-what-you-wish-for" scenario, which simply makes a bad situation worse? Or freedom from needless captivity?

Len Oxman seems to think it'll help. His only complaint: "Three hours is too long. Why not just two?"

I guess some people are never satisfied. Next thing you know, he'll be asking why airlines still lose checked bags, even though we have to pay for them.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations including ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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