Should tarmac-delay rules become law?

By | May 22nd, 2011

As someone who has spent a career listening to travelers complain, I know what you don’t like when you’re on vacation.

You hate being ripped off by airlines, car rental companies and hotels. Silly rules frustrate you, too. So does bad customer service.

But what you don’t tell me is often just as important.

For example, even after a series of high-profile tarmac delays in 2008, in which planeloads of passengers spent hours trapped on aircraft without water or food, few air travelers were screaming for laws that would force flight crews to return to the gate. Sure, there were one or two loud voices calling for legislation, but mostly passengers responded to the problem with a collective shrug.

Still, government regulators heeded the calls and enacted measures to punish airlines for holding planes for more than three hours. The rule has all but eliminated tarmac delays, a problem that affected only a fraction of flights to begin with.

So I was more than a little surprised when I heard that a coalition of consumer organizations was pushing for additional legislation to address the issue. The groups, which include Consumers Union, Public Citizen and the Consumer Federation of America, support writing the regulations into the current Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, with some modifications.

“The contributions to the public good provided by the [Department of Transportation] rulemakings are of such significance that they must be codified into public law,” the groups write in a letter to several key legislators. The lengthy letter asks lawmakers to adopt the three-hour rule as a law, to tighten tarmac-delay definitions, to require airlines to disclose a full fare when quoting a price, and to force airlines to display DOT consumer hotline information on all tickets, printed and electronic.

It’s not that I’m against any of these things, per se. It’s just that as someone who spends a lot of time talking to travelers, I’m not sure whether they’re asking for any of this.

Take the hotline, which is part of both the House and the Senate versions of the reauthorization bill. It would require the secretary of transportation to establish a consumer complaints telephone number for air passengers to call.

A phone number in 2011? Seriously? In an age of e-mail and social networking, the idea of DOT operators answering phone calls from distraught passengers seems kind of old school. What’s more, it seems likely that the agency would have to hire more workers to staff the call center, and since the law doesn’t include any new money for it, it’s unclear how the center would be funded.

Or take tarmac delays. In April 2010, regulators adopted a rule prohibiting U.S. airlines from keeping their aircraft on the tarmac for more than three hours without allowing passengers to deplane. There have been no tarmac delays exceeding three hours in four of the past six months, according to the DOT. And no one — not one of my readers — has been demanding a new law to address the issue.

Airlines don’t want any new legislation, either. “Airlines proactively take steps — such as canceling flights in advance of storms — to minimize inconvenience and extensive delays and ultimately get customers where they are going safely and as quickly as possible,” says Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade association.

Additional tarmac-delay laws could hurt air travelers, research suggests. The American Aviation Institute, a Washington think tank, combed through data and concluded that the three-hour rule, by prompting airlines to preemptively cancel flights, affected half a million air travelers and cost them $3 billion in lost productivity last year. Michael Miller, the institute’s vice president, called the proposed new rules “overzealous and overly vague.”

“The actions by consumer groups will add cost to everyone’s ticket,” he told me. “Adding new regulations to an overregulated industry will only add more cost. More cost equals higher ticket prices.”

I asked federal regulators what would happen if new consumer protection laws were passed with the FAA bill. A spokesman said that it would trigger another rulemaking process to reconcile existing regulations with the law and that this process could take many months, if not years, and might interfere with other regulations already in the works.

In other words, it could be a mess.

This is one of those rare times when I’m siding with the airline industry. Not because passing laws that supersede regulations is a bad idea. (Actually, it might be nice to get a full price on an airline ticket, but I’m content to wait until the DOT addresses that in an upcoming ruling, as promised.)

No, it’s because I haven’t heard any readers ask for these additional steps. Not a one.

I think that passengers would be best served by the passage of a slimmed-down FAA bill that actually funds the FAA, and by letting regulators do what they do best.

It’s what air travelers want.

(Photo: Beistel lziege/Flickr Creative Commons)

Posted May 22, 2011
  • Mbods

    I like the full disclosure of price.  I like the hotline number because not everyone has access to the internet, especially older people.  Maybe they can have a number and email address?  Tarmac delay regulations?  You betcha!  The fines seems to be working, so not sure if we need an actual law but the airlines (and many other large, monopoly-type businesses) don’t seem to want to do the right things towards its customers unless they’re forced to.  Unlike smaller companies, where we can take our businesses elsewhere when awful things happen, this situation is different.  If I ever decide to fly again (boycotting at the moment) I’d rather wait in the airport with access to food and drink, than be held hostage in a metal tube, starving, thirsty and not able to go to the bathroom.  It’s totally inhumane and we need a guarantee this will not happen.

  •  Tarmac delays are no more a major problem and the DOT rules seem to be working. Making the 3 hours rule a law is an overkill that is not needed. The legislators have more important issues to address than this. 

  • Bill

    Regulations exist to prevent people from doing things they shouldn’t do.  Generally, they are driven by people doing things that others don’t like.

    My view on tarmac delays and other things like that is that they should be regulated sufficiently so that airlines don’t do it.  I’m not so concerned about whether it is statistically a lot of flights or not.  I don’t ever want it to happen to me.  Period.

    As far as fare disclosures, all that does is cause me to ignore just about every big of advertising involving a sale that there is.  The cuts on the fare portion are almost meaningless in a lot of cases, due to the surcharges.

    Although I think they should show the true fare, I can get around it.  If it is something I can get around, I don’t care so much.  If it is something I can’t get around, such as a long tarmac delay, then yes, I do.

    I was delayed on a Western Airlines flight decades ago.  My flying is still affected by it.  I do not even consider taking a Delta flight. 

  • Prairiescaper24

    “In April 2010, regulators adopted a rule
    prohibiting U.S. airlines from keeping their aircraft on the tarmac for
    more than three hours without allowing passengers to deplane. There have
    been no tarmac delays exceeding three hours in four of the past six
    months, according to the DOT.”  If the rule is working, if airlines are indeed following the rule without disaster to their industry, then why would turning the rule into law be a bad thing?  It will just deter backsliding.  And could include international airlines, which is only fair.  And only humane.
    As for full disclosure of pricing, I think that’s a good idea.  The fees and taxes added to plane tickets are much higher than for a vast majority of other products and services, and that should be clear upfront.   
    Whether the DOT ‘hotline’ is a phone number or an email address or whatever contact method is not the point.  If the DOT isn’t committed to responding to the complaints, it’s really pointless.  And without more funding, how can they respond to each complaint? 

  •  This seems like a double edged sword here.  While the airlines are taking advantage of passengers and holding them basically hostage on the tarmacs sometimes but we are inviting the government into our lives piecemeal.

    I’ve had a long tarmac delay and it’s extremely frustrating and annoying but I’m also so tired of “the man” legislating every single part of my life.  Slowly, but surely, they’ve been inserting themselves into our lives and we just let them.  Some examples of this is the legislation in New York that chefs can’t cook with salt.  In California it’s the diet soda ban.  At the federal level, it’s the suggestion higher taxes should be charged on “junk food” which is an arbitrary list created by, you guessed it, “the man”.

    However, sadly, the airline industry is one that will do something horrible, such as a 15 hour tarmac delay, and then shrug their shoulders wondering why people are so angry.  They create an environment where we NEED them to be legislated more.

    I don’t know the right answer because there seems to be valid reasons for and against both side…

  • Brooklyn

    If you don’t enact ironclad legislation, the airlines will think the new rules don’t have teeth and in a couple of years, we’ll be right back where we were.  Anyway, three hours is way too long! Make it a one-hour rule, set in stone, and include a hotline for the many people who don’t have easy access to e-mail while travelling.

  • Asiansm Dan

    I don’t see any serious reason not to make it became law. It will prevent the next administration undo the rules pressured by the lobbyists and the Airlines oligopoly.

  • Absherlock

    I think rules are more flexible than laws in a situation like this. Once a law is enacted it’s pretty much set in stone and might literally take an act of Congress to change or update it. A rule, on the other hand, can be reviewed and strengthened, weakened or redirected as situations change.

  • jamiru

    I also find it interesting that there isn’t more interest/concern about tarmac delays. The comments sections are always much shorter for these types of articles on your site than for some of the more common customer service issues. I wonder if maybe it’s because fewer people have actually experienced a lengthy tarmac delay? Although as other commenters have already noted, if you have been in one, it can be a harrowing experience. And for some of my relatives with diabetes or deep vein thrombosis, a tarmac delay could involve some significant medical risk. However, these relatives don’t fly much, and as a result aren’t terribly vocal about such issues. But given the dire situation a long tarmac delay can put people in, and given airlines’ poor track record with customer service, I’d like to see more regulations (and I’d be OK with legislation) to ensure passenger safety by eliminating long tarmac delays.

  • emanon256

    I think the 3 hour rule is a major problem because airlines are canceling flights as a precaution.  I travel frequently, and I would rather sit on a plane for a few hours and get to my destination, than have my flight canceled and have to wait hours, overnight, or sometimes days before there is space available on the next flight.  Yes, I agree that sitting in a plane for hours upon hours is not acceptable, but the rules seems to rigid to work, and created more of a hassle.  I think there should be some rule requiring airlines to provide food and water when sitting over a period of time, but huge fines causing them to cancel flights is more of a problem, than the few flights a year that have extended tarmac delays.

  • I would like the rules to go a little further by limiting the tarmac time based on flight time. If a flight will take 3 hours there is no reason for a flight delay to cause the plane to sit on the tarmac for 3 hours and should be limited in these cases to half the travel time. I would also like to see something done about late flights and hold over times for connecting flights. Many times I have sat on a plane wondering why we haven’t taken off yet only to see 1 or 2 more people get on the plain from a connecting flight then  hear the flight attendant say we can leave now we were waiting for the 2 people who just got on the plain. I mention this because I have missed my connecting flight at least 3 times by less then 2 minutes causing me to sit in the airport for over 4 hours till the next flight left for my destination and wonder why couldn’t they wait for me for 2 minutes when they wait for others for 15 or 20 minutes. This wouldn’t have mattered as much if there were many flights going to where I was going but there were only 2 the one I was supposed to be on and the one I had to wait for. The airlines knew I was on the flight and when it was to land but didn’t bother holding the plane for 2 minutes which made me sit in the airport for 4 hours. It makes me wonder why hold a plane for someone else for 15 to 20 minutes and not me for 2 minutes. This is why there should also be a rule for connecting flight delays which could be based on where the planes are going. In my case I know I was going to a small airport and the plane wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon I know this because I checked the flights coming and going for that day and there were no flights leaving that airport for over an hour after the time my plane was to land. For me there is no more excuse for this then there is for having a plane sit on the tarmac for hours.

  • Moon55343

    I can see how people would not respond until they have experienced a delay that required them to return to the gate. Last friday was a first, and the three hours on the tarmac was just a small part of what happened. From when boarding started until we pushed out of the gate was 1 hour 45 mins, then we sat for 3 hours, with only one small glass of water offered during this time. It was Delta at MSP and when we got back to the gate it was chaos. The general mood was patience and empathy for everyone on board, there were several small children that did wonderfully all things considered. However the crew at the gate was horrendous! They did not fully explain our options and kept telling us as soon as they could refuel it would only be 15-20 minutes, which turned into over an hour. From the time I boarded the plane until I unboarded at my destination for a 2.5 hour flight was 12 hours. Did I mention they ran out of tp on the plane? I survived and will be better prepared for future indicdences, I just hope Delta will be too!

  • Marcmucklow

    Well I am reading this as I approach my 5th hour trapped in a jetblue plane in Hartford, so much for it not still happening

  • Guest

    Make it a one-hour rule

    Not practical, however emotionally appealing that is to lots of people.

  • linda colling

    If the country would refuse to fly these airlines that are holding there passengers hostage on the tarmac for hours we could make a difference in the way we are treated when we fly BUT it would take everyone to take a stand. This wretched airlines that held people for 2 hours in Arizona on the tarmac with no air conditioning is deplorable. The temp in the plane was 110 degrees! If no one would fly Algiant ( please excuse the spelling )airlines we could cause them to go out of business!