Airport outrage: Will airlines be fined for three-hour delays on tarmac?

The US Transportation Department can fine airlines that force passengers to wait in an airplane on the tarmac for more than three hours. The blizzard aftermath could be a test case.

Seth Wenig/AP
A traveler talks on his phone at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York Tuesday. Passengers on two Cathay Pacific flights and a British Airways flight spent hours on the tarmac Monday after landing because there were no gates available for them.

Significant airport delays continued for US air travelers on Wednesday, as airlines struggled to work through a backlog of passengers three days after a major blizzard landed squarely on New York City.

Amid the winter storm and its aftermath, some flights were stuck on runways for three hours or more, loaded with passengers but not taking off. That could make the storm a test of enforcing a Transportation Department "tarmac rule" that put a three-hour limit into effect earlier this year.

It may not be known for weeks, however, if any airlines will face fines under that rule.

"The Department of Transportation is reviewing the details surrounding the incidents at New York and other extended delays," says Olivia Alair, press secretary for the department. "If consumers believe they've been party to a violation ... they can also report that to the DOT on our website."

Meanwhile, air travel was moving across the country Wednesday, but with travelers heading in or out of New York still facing delays. Many travelers remained stranded, awaiting an empty seat on an outgoing plane.

The 'tarmac rule'

A rule launched in April calls on airlines to let passengers get off the plane if they've been sitting on the tarmac for three hours, to offer food and water after two hours, and to provide usable lavatories during a runway wait. Carriers that fail to comply can be fined $27,500 per passenger – a sum that potentially could total several million dollars in penalties for a single flight.

The threat of hefty fines appears to have made a difference. In 2009, the period from May to September saw more than 500 flights exceed three hours of tarmac time. During that same stretch in 2010, the number has fallen nearly to zero. The Transportation Department has been reviewing a few incidents, but the only penalty has been a $12,000 charge to United Airlines for poorly reported data.

Will any penalties result from the great Northeast blizzard? Some of the storm's stuck-traveler tales this week relate to trains rather than planes. And among the relatively few airplane incidents, several involve international airlines, which are not directly covered by the three-hour limit.

Travel writer Jason Cochran chronicled the wait of more than four hours that he and other passengers faced on a Virgin Atlantic jet trying to leave New York's John F. Kennedy Airport Sunday. Since then, some incoming planes at JFK have faced even longer waits to find an open gate, according to the Associated Press.

International airlines not off the hook

International airlines still face some possible penalties under the US rule if officials determine that the carriers have violated their own stated policies for passengers. The Transportation Department has been considering expanded passenger-rights rules, which might put the three-hour limit on overseas carriers.

Even on US-based airlines, however, there's no guaranty that airlines will face big fines, even in some cases when passengers wait for more than three hours. The San Francisco Examiner, for example, told the story of a New-York bound flight Tuesday that departed more than three hours after passengers boarded.

But the three-hour clock doesn't start ticking until a flight crew shuts the door for departure. The Delta flight from San Francisco left the gate less than 90 minutes before the plane took off, a spokesman for the airline told the Examiner.

The Transportation Department gets tarmac-time reports from domestic airlines monthly. So it may take some time before key details related to weather-affected tarmac waits to be reviewed.

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