U.S. airlines soon will be required to allow passengers to get off domestic flights that have been sitting on the tarmac for three hours, provided doing so doesn't jeopardize their safety and security or disrupt airport operations.
The price for ignoring this rule is steep: Airlines face a maximum fine of $27,500 per passenger, said a spokesman for the Transportation Department.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the rule Monday, saying it was triggered by a series of nightmarish incidents for passengers, most recently a situation in August that left 47 passengers stranded overnight in a small regional jet in Rochester, Minn.
In Baltimore Saturday, an Air Jamaica flight twice got stuck on the runway, holding its passengers hostage for more than six hours and prompting at least one of them to call police.
"Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly," LaHood said in a statement.
The new rule is tougher than many in the aviation industry expected, analysts said.
Carriers will be required to provide passengers with food, such as pretzels or granola bars, as well as potable water within the first two hours a plane is delayed. They must also maintain working lavatories.
They also are barred from scheduling chronically delayed flights and required to provide passengers with information on the flight's on-time record.
Operators of international flights will be required to specify their own time limits for deplaning.
The final rule, which takes effect in 120 days, provides a victory to passenger-rights advocates who had lobbied Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations to provide some recourse to passengers who are stuck for hours on aircraft.
Passenger rights have been debated in Washington for the past decade. The Bush administration had convened an industry task force and urged airlines to develop action plans to eliminate lengthy delays after storms and an overburdened air traffic system contributed to a series of incidents in 2007.
But Monday's rule is far tougher than the measure proposed by Bush, establishing the firm three-hour limit for the time a plane spends on the tarmac after it pulls away from the gate.
The rule mirrors legislation proposed by Sens. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, that would also have allowed passengers to exit a plane following a three-hour tarmac wait unless the pilot believed the plane could be in the air within 30 minutes. But that provision is inserted in a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill that has been stalled by the health care debate.
"This is one of the more stunning announcements out of the DOT that I can remember," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group for corporate travel buyers.
The rule leaves airlines and airports with little time to resolve a host of logistical issues. One problem is that aircraft lined up for takeoff can't easily pull out of the "conga line" of planes when they reach the time limit.
And returning to the gate after such a wait might create a whole new set of headaches for passengers, who might find themselves stranded overnight rather than for several hours.
"We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences - more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience. 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. Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one," said James May, CEO of the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the largest U.S. carriers.