Federal officials are looking into whether any airlines will be fined over long tarmac delays that occurred over the weekend at New York's Kennedy Airport.
By one estimate, there were a dozen or more international flights that landed at JFK and sat on the tarmac for at least four hours, the point at which the airlines could be subject to huge fines.
An Obama-era regulation was intended to curb such long delays, and while consumer advocates say they are far less common than a few years ago, the problem persists. Meanwhile, the airline industry is trying to tweak the rule to get more time before fines kick in.
In 2009, there were 868 domestic flights that were kept on the ground at least three hours. In 2011, the first full year under the rule, long delays plunged to 86 and have topped 100 only twice since.
"The tarmac rule has been working like a charm," says Charlie Leocha, president of Travelers United and member of a Department of Transportation advisory panel on travel. "If we canceled the tarmac-delay rule tomorrow, there would be 600 planes sitting out there next year."
The rule might not have made a difference at JFK Airport. The Port Authority planned a quick restart after a blizzard, then pushed back the schedule. By that time, dozens of foreign flights were headed to JFK, creating a shortage of gates and gridlock.
Ian Petchenik, who was watching traffic at JFK for tracking service Flightradar24, said Tuesday that it was safe to say at least a dozen arriving international flights were stuck on the tarmac for at least four hours.
Nicole Haber sat on an Air China plane for eight hours before a bus came to take passengers to the terminal.
"I don't know who to blame," said Haber, a public-relations specialist in New York. Asked if Air China should be fined, she hesitated because "a large part of the problem is probably JFK's," but then wondered why the airline didn't send the plane to another airport that wasn't gridlocked. Air China did not immediately respond to questions.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Transportation said the agency was looking into the JFK flights and would consider the facts of each case to determine whether to seek fines.
The tarmac rule grew out of several airline debacles, including the time several JetBlue planes were stuck for up to 10 hours during a snow storm at JFK on Valentine's Day in 2007. The final straw fell when a Continental Express plane with 47 passengers including babies spent the night crammed in a small plane with no food and overflowing toilets in Minnesota.
The Transportation Department set a three-hour limit for ground delays involving domestic flights and four hours for international flights. Airlines must have food and water within two hours and provide medical help if needed. Exceptions to the rule can be granted for safety, security or air traffic control reasons.
Violators can be fined $27,500 per passenger. Potentially that is nearly $5 million for a fully loaded Boeing 737 and more than $8 million for a jumbo jet like the one Haber was on, a Boeing 777.
The actual fines have been much smaller. In the past three years, regulators have fined American Airlines and Southwest Airlines $1.6 million and Frontier Airlines $1.5 million.
While extended delays have dropped sharply, some consumer advocates worry that the rule may be losing its punch.
"It has definitely been successful, but the danger is that without strong enforcement it will deteriorate," said Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights. He accused the Department of Transportation of being too willing to let airlines blame the weather or other factors to levy fines far below the maximum, and generally waive half of them if the airline promises not to violate the rule for one year.
Critics say the rule leads to more cancellations because airlines will scrap a flight if there's a chance that it won't take off before the 3-hour window closes. The Transportation Department's inspector general concluded in late 2016 that the rule did seem to increase cancellations for about three years but had no effect the next two years.
The airline industry is lobbying to give pilots more power to decide if it's unsafe to let passengers off, "such as snow or intense wind or rain that prevents safe movement of the aircraft," said Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group that represents most of the largest U.S. carriers. Airlines also want to stop the clock when the pilot asks for permission to return to the terminal, not when the plane reaches the gate.
Brian Kelly, CEO of The Points Guy travel website, said if anyone gets fined in the JFK mess, it should be the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for the lack of coordination among JFK's terminals last weekend.
"Airlines can be blamed for a lot of things, but this isn't one of them," he said.
Kelly still likes the regulation, however. "The rule has protected passengers and it hasn't been catastrophic to the airlines."
Contact David Koenig at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter