Rule: Airlines must free passengers after 3 hours

MINNEAPOLIS — Spurred by complaints from passengers — including those stranded overnight in a foul-smelling airliner in Rochester, Minn., last summer — federal officials announced new rules Monday that require airlines to let passengers off grounded planes after three hours.

"Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement issued along with the new rules, which take effect in April. Airlines would be fined $27,500 per passenger for each violation of the three-hour limit, he said.

Minnesotan Link Christin, 56, a law professor who was stranded on the Rochester tarmac for six hours in August on a Continental Express flight, said the change is "wonderful news for consumers."

He described the experience as "a nightmare." The 47 passengers were jammed into a 50-seat airplane, which was operated by ExpressJet Airlines and had been diverted to Rochester because of bad weather in the Twin Cities. Passengers did not have food or water, there were crying babies on board, and the toilet broke down halfway through the night.

"And we're sitting 100 yards away from the terminal with lights and bathrooms and people," Christin said, but were not allowed off the plane.

Christin, who lives in Lindstrom, Minn., said that flight may have moved the government to act because it gained so much media attention.

The new rule "is a Christmas miracle for the flying public," said Kate Hanni of the passenger-rights group in Napa Valley, Calif. "It proves that a true grassroots effort can make a difference."

However, the airline industry said the time limit will make things worse for the flying public.

"We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences — more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience," said James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines.

"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."

Asked for comment about the new rule, Delta Air Lines referred to the ATA's response.

Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark pointed out Monday that the company has had a policy since early this year that "no passenger should be subjected to a tarmac delay of three hours or more without being given the opportunity to get off the aircraft, providing it can be done safely and securely."

Under the new federal rules, exceptions will be allowed only if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.

The Department of Transportation also announced carriers must provide adequate food and drinking water for passengers within two hours of a delay on the tarmac and maintain operable bathrooms.

LaHood said the changes come in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and also to address the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems.

In November, a total of $175,000 was levied against the three airlines involved in the Aug. 8 incident. Continental Airlines and ExpressJet were fined a total civil penalty of $100,000; Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, was assessed $75,000.

Mesaba provided ground handling for the flight, and federal investigators faulted a Mesaba agent for refusing to allow the ExpressJet passengers into the Rochester terminal.

Continental issued full refunds and offered additional compensation.

The number of flights that sit on the tarmac for three or more hours is a minuscule portion of the number of overall flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Through November of this year, Delta had 144 flights in that category, while Northwest had 43, according to the bureau.