What the Tarmac Rule Means for You

Last August, a Continental flight heading from Houston to Minneapolis-St. Paul was diverted to Minnesota’s Rochester International Airport because of thunderstorms in the Twin Cities. The 47 passengers and the flight crew sat on the Rochester tarmac for nearly six hours overnight without ample water or food as well as a toilet tank that was never meant to be used for a six-hour stretch.

In response, the Department of Transportation (DOT) handed out $175,000 in total fines to Continental as well as to ExpressJet Airlines, which operated the flight, as well as to Delta-owned Mesaba Airlines, which refused the Continental crew’s requests to let the passengers off the plane, according to the DOT.

While the Minnesota incident was by no means the first or the longest tarmac delay for a domestic airline, it somehow became a symbolic one that the DOT cited as one of the catalysts for its new rule on enhancing airline passenger protections – informally known as the tarmac rule.

Announced last December and effective April 29 – the rule requires U.S. carriers operating routes at large and medium hub U.S. airports to establish a contingency plan that provides passengers with adequate food and potable water (“adequate” being defined by the DOT as “a granola bar and bottle of water or similar snack) and any needed medical care “no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate or touches down if the aircraft remains on the tarmac.”

The rule also stipulates that U.S. carriers “will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours,” so the contingency plan must also provide passengers with a way to deplane before the 3-hour mark.

Large airlines who fail to comply with the tarmac rule -- which also provides for other passenger rights beyond tarmac contingency plans – could face a “maximum civil penalty of $27,500 per violation,” while “small entities or individuals” that violate the rule could be subject to a maximum civil penalty of $2,500. For the sake of argument and because it’s fun to do the math, a large carrier who the DOT felt egregiously violated the rule on a 47-passenger flight could be slapped with a fine of $1.3 million.

The potential price for violating the rule means that in the short term, many domestic airlines will likely act “with an abundance of caution,” says Jami Counter, senior director of TripAdvisor Flights, and that planes sitting on the tarmac getting too “close to the three-hour bubble will [return to the gate] and be cancelled,” he says.

“This is a very well-intentioned rule. The problem is that it has some loopholes,” notes George Hobica, president of AirfareWatchdog.com, referring to the tarmac rule’s two exceptions: A pilot doesn’t have to deplane passengers if he determines there’s a safety or security issue, or if air traffic control tells him that deplaning would disrupt the airport. “If the captain decides it’s not safe [to deplane], all bets are off,” Hobica explains, “but what’s not safe? What if there are no gates and no way to get passengers from the gate to the terminal except for walking across an active taxiway -- all bets are off -- [the airline] won’t get fined.” Likewise, if no gates are available and there’s a thunderstorm, Hobica says, the pilot likely won’t feel it’s safe to deplane then, either.

Hobica suggests that the airlines won’t be able to obey the tarmac rule successfully unless the airports -- who are not subject to the fines -- become part of the solution by either making emergency deplaning gates available at all times or, in the absence of an available gate, providing a bus equipped with a movable stairway that could drive to the aircraft and deplane passengers. “A spare gate is lost revenue for airports and they are loath to do that,” Hobica says, “but they need to get people off plane safely -- so you either need to bring transportation to the plane or bring people to the gate and that’s going to cost money.”

Hobica adds that the rule’s success also depends on the airlines’ ability to better cooperate with each other and perhaps “share a gate for emergency deplaning,” which he suggests would have helped avert the issue in Minnesota when “Continental didn’t have staff [on the ground] and Delta did.”

Check the sites, know your rights

Beyond tarmac contingency plans, the DOT rule also requires the airlines to "flag and eliminate flights that are chronically late,” Hobica says. Avoid those flights, naturally, and opt for the earliest possible departure to avoid “cascading delays throughout the day,” he says.

The airlines must also adopt and post on their Web sites a customer service plan that the rule says should, “at a minimum, address” how the airline intends to notify passengers of “known delays, cancellations, and diversions” as well as how it plans to provide such services as offering the lowest fare, delivering bags on time, and issuing prompt ticket refunds.

How to complain

If you’re sitting on the tarmac and nothing appears to be happening after three hours, “have a calm conversation with cabin crew,” Counter suggests, saying something like “I know we’ve passed the three hour mark, what’s the situation?” Former airline pilot Leonard Lee of CrazyAirlineFees.com agrees that “I would encourage passengers to ask, but never argue with airline personnel, even if they are less than satisfied with the response. It's very easy for ‘air rage’ to develop inside the enclosed confines of the cabin. Arguing or confronting airline personnel will not help the situation.”

In 2007, writer Lori Bizzoco and her then-boyfriend Drew boarded a Cabo-bound Continental flight at JFK that turned into a 9-hour weather-related tarmac delay. She recalls that the “pilot and flight attendants were amazing and in communication with us,” but at a certain point the flight crew “told us that they didn’t have anything to tell us” and one hour stretched into another. About six hours into the delay, Bizzoco decided to call the assignment desk at one of the networks.

“They wanted to talk to me, “but ironically at the same time I called they got a call from one of their anchors who was stuck on one of the Jet Blue planes” that was also stranded on the tarmac during the delay. Hobica concurs that in a similar situation you might want to “get some publicity, start shaming the airline. Call the airline’s corporate offices and be proactive. You don’t have to just sit there.”

You have options after the fact, too. After the initial tarmac delay at JFK and hustling to LaGuardia for a different flight Bizzoco says she “got to Cabo 30+ hours later, and, when we did arrive it was another four days before we got our luggage.” Lori and Drew – who, in a happy aside, ended up getting engaged during the trip -- had enormous tarmac delay-related expenses from paying for extra transfers, buying new clothes, and running up enormous phone bills. The problem was that she was unsuccessful at getting reimbursed until she eventually got through to the airline president’s office.

Under the tarmac rule, you won’t have to work as hard as Bizzoco to get reimbursed: U.S. carriers are now required to designate an airline employee to monitor flight delays and “respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints.” This part of the rule also stipulates that carriers must post the mailing address, email address, or URLs of their complaint departments on their Web sites and further, the airlines must acknowledge the complaint within 30 days and send a response within 60 days.

If you want to escalate your complaint further, appeal directly to the DOT. When reached for comment, Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Mosley told me that “if passengers believe airlines are not complying with the rule they should file a complaint with DOT's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, online at airconsumer.dot.gov or by phone at 202-366-2220.”