Tarmac delays: how the airlines rank as US cracks down

A new federal rule will prohibit airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours.

By , Staff writer

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    In this Feb. 14, 2007 file photo, stranded passengers aboard JetBlue Flight 751 to Cancun walk around the cabin, while waiting hours to take off from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
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Now tarmac delays will be more than just bad publicity: Keeping passengers out on the runway for more than three hours will be a violation of a new federal aviation rule, the Transportation Department said Monday.

The new rule also calls for carriers to provide "adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories," according to a news release announcing the decision. And the rule requires steps designed to reduce delays and increase the transparency of the airlines' performance.

The regulations come in the wake of some high-profile cases in which planes have been stuck on runways for as long as 10 hours.

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Which airlines have the worst record this year? Here are the five airlines for which tarmac times exceeded three hours most often, along with the number of these incidents, according to a tally of monthly numbers reported by the government through October:

Delta: 110 flights
US Airways: 79
United: 65
American: 58
JetBlue: 56

The accompanying chart shows fuller data, ranking 19 large airlines, with numbers from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). Although Delta has the most three-plus-hour incidents, JetBlue ranks as the airline on which passengers are most likely to see "taxi-out" time exceed three hours, according to the BTS data. That's the same airline that made headlines two years ago for a Valentine's Day flight on which passengers were stuck on the ground in New York for nearly 11 hours.

Such occurrences are rare for all airlines. But at JetBlue, it occurs about once every 3,000 flights, versus an industry average of about one flight in 10,000.

The Transportation Department rule occurs during a week where another transportation mode is in the spotlight for stranded passengers. Rail riders going under the English Channel spent a night in dark, unheated trains deep within the Chunnel.

The move also comes during some of the busiest travel days of the year. But even though it may seem like a holiday gift of new passenger rights, the new policy doesn't take effect until April (120 days after publication in the Federal Register).

The new rule has several facets. It would:

• Prohibit airlines from permitting a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers. Exceptions would be allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.

• Prohibit airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights.

• Require airlines to designate an airline employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, respond in a timely and substantive fashion to consumer complaints, and provide information to consumers on where to file complaints.

• Require airlines to display on their website delay information for each domestic flight they operate.

Airlines have been performing better this year on runway delays. Fewer than 600 flights sat on the tarmac for three hours or more during the first 10 months of this year, whereas such incidents have averaged more than 1,200 a year for a decade. Since 1995, the worst years for these three-plus-hour taxi-out times have been 2000 and 2007– each with more than 1,600 incidents, according to the BTS.

But plenty of passengers are still finding themselves grounded for lengthy stints. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants to see that number fall to zero for all carriers.

“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Secretary LaHood said in announcing the rule.

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