TARMAC DELAY Overview:
Tarmac delay has been in the news a lot lately, and some of the stories have been pretty horrifying. New federal rules now set a 3-hour limit on holding passengers on the plane — at least for domestic flights at larger airports. They also require airlines to provide basic necessities like water and lavatory access during tarmac delays. Now, the Department of Transportation (DOTDepartment of Transportation) is considering whether all domestic flights should be covered by the 3-hour limit. And it’s wondering whether there should be a federal time limit on tarmac delays for international flights.
This post will tell you more about what the problems have been, and what solutions DOT Department of Transportation is considering – and alert you to questions DOT particularly wants people to comment on.
Recent federal rules set a 3 hour limit on keeping passengers in a plane sitting on the tarmac and require that passengers have access to lavatories, medical care if needed, and food and water after 2 hours. (The 3-hour limit doesn’t apply if deplaning would create safety or security problems, or “significantly disrupt” airport operations.) But these rules apply only to domestic flights at large-hub or medium-hub airports. (See a list of airports here.) Long tarmac delays create the same problems and discomforts for passengers at small-hub and non-hub airports.
Under the new rules, international flights by US carriers must be covered by a “tarmac delay contingency plan” containing an “assurance” that tarmac delays will not be longer than a set number of hours. But federal regulations don’t put any limit on how many hours the plan can specify — and international flights by foreign carriers are not required even to have a contingency plan. Passengers suffer the same discomforts from long delays regardless of where the flight is going or which carrier operates it. In fact, passengers whose travel is disrupted because of delays on international flights will likely have more problems getting reasonable rebookings because such flights happen less frequently.
Also, although DOT Department of Transportation told US carriers that their tarmac contingency plans ought to be included in the airline’s contract of carriage, many carriers haven’t done this. The contract of carriage is the legally binding agreement between the airline and passengers, which the airline has to make available to consumers and has to abide by. Even if more carriers were required to have contingency plans, the same thing might happen.
Finally, passengers have been very frustrated when they get little or no communication from airline personnel about the reason for the delay, the current status of the flight, etc.
DOT wants to extend the new tarmac delay rules to flights at small-hub and non-hub airports. This would mean that all domestic flights are covered by the 3-hour limit and the responsibility to provide passengers with basic necessities, except at very small airports (< 10,000 passengers a year). Airlines would have to coordinate their tarmac delay contingency plans in advance with all airports they use, as well as with TSA and US Customs & Border Protection (CBP). This advance coordination should make it less likely that safety, security, or airport operation concerns would extend the 3-hour limit.
The new rules that international flights by US carriers must have a pre-announced time limit for tarmac delay would be extended to foreign carrier international flights, so long as the carrier operates any international flights in the US with planes designed to hold 30 or more passengers. (All flights by the carrier would be covered, even if a specific flight involves a smaller plane.) These carriers would have the same requirements for passenger necessities, contingency plans, advance coordination, etc. as US-carrier international flights. DOT Department of Transportation is not currently proposing to set a federal time limit on delay for international flights, but wants to know what you think about this. (See next section).
DOT is considering requiring (rather than just strongly suggesting) that the tarmac contingency plan be included in the the airline’s contract of carriage.
Finally, DOT Department of Transportation is thinking about requiring these US and foreign carriers to update passengers every 30 minutes during a tarmac delay about the status of the flight and the reasons for the delay.
Should DOT Department of Transportation set a uniform federal time limit on tarmac delay for US and foreign international flights? If so, what should that limit be, and why?
Is extending the tarmac contingency plan requirement to smaller international carriers (operating any flight in the US with a plane designed for 30 or more passengers) too burdensome given the expected benefits? Should the cut-off instead be planes designed for 60 or more passengers?
If airlines were required to make their plans part of the contract of carriage, would the result ultimately be worse for consumers because airlines might make fewer promises in the plan if they feared being legally liable for not following the plan in unpredictable situations?
Should airports (as well as air carriers) be required to have their own tarmac contingency plans, in addition to coordinating with each carrier about the carrier’s plan?
DOT has checked with Homeland Security and it may be possible to deplane delayed or diverted international passengers without CBP screening if passengers are kept in a separate, closed part of the terminal. Is this idea likely to be workable?
As part of better passenger information about delays, should DOT Department of Transportation also require airlines to specifically inform passengers that they can deplane in situations where the delay is at the gate and the aircraft door has not been closed yet? Should airlines be required to specifically tell passengers they can deplane if a plane has returned to the gate, within the 3-hour limit, for mechanical or emergency reasons? What are the likely costs and operational concerns if such announcements are made?