DOT Mandates Passenger Bill of Rights and I’m Not Happy

Yesterday, the DOT decided to issue a final ruling that will effectively require airlines to have a passenger bill of rights. This includes a 3 hour limit on the amount of time you spend on the ground on a domestic flight. While I’m sure that Kate Hanni and friends are thrilled, I am not.

Why the 3 Hour Rule Sucks

You can read the full 81 page ruling (PDF) if you’d like, but there is one particular piece I want to focus on today. It’s the requirement that US-based airlines create contingency plans for mid- to large-sized airport operations.

The rule says that every US-based airline that operates planes with more than 30 seats (if those airlines also have smaller planes, those count too) has to create contingency plans that effectively restrict the airlines to the eventual detriment of the passengers. This plan must have the following in it:

  • Domestic flights cannot remain on the ramp for more than 3 hours unless there is a safety or security reason or if it “significantly disrupt airport operations.”
  • International flights have the same restriction but the time limit is “a set number of hours as determined by the carrier.”
  • After two hours, the airline must provide food and potable water.
  • Lavatories must work and medical attention must be provide if needed.

What happens if they don’t do this? It will be considered an “unfair and deceptive practice” and that means, according to 49 U.S.C. 41712 that “the Secretary shall order the air carrier, foreign air carrier, or ticket agent to stop the practice or method.” In practice, I’m not entirely clear what this means. Some news outlets are reporting the fine will be $27,500 PER PASSENGER, but to me it seems like it’s $27,500 PER FLIGHT. Obviously there’s a big difference there.

Long tarmac delays suck, right? So why am I against this plan? Let me explain.

Much of this came out of the severe delays that airlines experienced a couple years ago. Kate Hanni was on a thunderstorm-diverted American flight in Texas and the JetBlue Valentine’s Day problems were legendary. Since that time, the airlines have made changes, though it’s going to be nearly impossible to be perfect in this regard when you’re actually thinking about the customer.

This past weekend, we saw a massive storm hit the east coast, and how did the airlines do? Well Delta and JetBlue both informed me that they had no domestic airplanes stuck on the tarmac for more than 3 hours the entire time. (American never responded.) There was one JetBlue flight from St Maarten that actually sat on the ground at JFK for 3 hours and 49 minutes, but that is international so this rule probably wouldn’t have hit it. More importantly, why did that happen?

It’s all because of gate issues. JetBlue and other airlines started pre-canceling a lot of flights, as I noted on BNET yesterday. Obviously the more flights you pre-cancel, the better chance the remaining flights will operate, but it means that there are a lot of airplanes around and shuffling them to make gates available during a blizzard is a tricky thing. You never want to see a plane sitting around for more than 3 hours, but if it’s only one (and JetBlue compensated the passengers), then that’s not too bad for the storm of the decade.

But all this pre-canceling comes at a price. That means there are a lot more people who aren’t getting home for Christmas because so many flights were canceled.

There’s no question that airlines would have had to cancel a lot of flights, but were they more conservative because of public backlash on delays? That’s my guess. Would you rather sit on an airplane for 4 hours or just have your flight canceled? I imagine that some would be happy to sit around for 4 hours if it meant they’d get out of town. Now they find themselves stuck.

But that’s not the only potential problem. Here’s another one. Let’s say that there’s a bad thunderstorm that snarls traffic for the day and your airplane has been inching along the taxiway for about 2 hours and 45 minutes. If that plane won’t be airborne by 3 hours, they have to turn around. It doesn’t matter if they were #1 for departure. Under this rule, the airline will be obligated to turn around and head back to the gate. Now we have a ton of problems – they have to let the passenger off, get the bag out and then get right back in the line at the very end. There is no place-holding allowed. Oh, and there’s a good chance the crew will have had too many hours at that point so they’ll need to find someone else to fly the plane. Now you’ll have a lot of unhappy customers.

“But look at what happened with Continental Express in Minnesota,” you might say. We need to prevent that, right? As I’ve argued before, this won’t do a thing to fix that problem. They tried to get people off the plane, but there were a lot of dumb moves that prevented that from happening. You think that a government law is going to magically change that? It’s not.

Oh, and that two hour rule for providing food and drink? Give me a friggin’ break. Airplanes are allowed to fly all day long without having food, so why do you need to provide food for a 2 hour delay? Water? Yeah, I get that. But food is a whole different beast, and it’s not necessary. Bring your own onboard.

There are a lot of other things in this ruling here as well, but most of those are worthless. Airlines have to disclose on time performance when you book. Ok. That info is readily available to anyone who wants it now. They also have to create a Customer Service Plan with 12 specific points. They already did – about 10 years ago with the Customers First plan. Yawn. I guess this just makes the things they already do into law.

So congratulations, DOT. You’ve created a rule that will do very little good. At least you’ll get some good press for it.

59 Responses to DOT Mandates Passenger Bill of Rights and I’m Not Happy

  1. David SFeastbay says:

    I really don’t get the 2hr rule for food. Since so many flights in the U.S. don’t service food where is this food going to appear from? So after 2 hours some how they will bring food to the plane while it’s on the taxi way inching closer to the end of the runway for take off? Or will the plane have to ‘pull over’ for lunch and then get back in line for another hour and lunch time won’t count for the 3 hour rule?

    I’m not going to read some 81 page rule on this so if anyone else does, let us know how meal time will be handled 2 hours into a 3 hour rule.

    Washington had to do something to please the voters so now they can say there’s a rule so don’t get on our cases anymore.

  2. Ron says:

    I thought one of the reasons for long tarmac delays was that planes can’t get in line for takeoff until they’ve pushed back. What’s the rationale for that?

    Also, what’s the definition of food? And does it have to be provided at no charge?

  3. Mat says:

    This is just industry insider flack. First of all your Rochester example is EXACTLY why this regulation is needed. If everybody involved in that debacle had known that after 3 hours it was going to cost real money those people would have been off the plane. The fact that there was no expected cost to being stupid was the entire problem.

    Secondly the regulation has all kinds of outs for the airlines, including the fact that if ATC and the PIC say you can’t get out of line then you can’t, and that would almost certainly apply in the case where you were number 1 for departure.

    Finally – if the airlines could be trusted to address this problem that would be one thing, but they’ve been promising a solution for years and yet people still get stuck on aircraft. This regulation will do what shouldn’t be necessary, motivate the airlines to provide a minimal level of customer service. The service they provide is the timely transportation of people – if they can’t achieve that then it’s going to cost them.

    I think it’s great – it finally makes the airline accountable in the only way that will ever work – by emptying their pockets.

  4. Over regulation of the airlines. As you pointed out, the airlines have already changed a lot since the delays. Anytime people are stuck for more than a few hours, it makes front page news. The bad publicity should be good enough for airlines to change their actions.

    Another negative thing, let’s say an airline gets that wonderful $27,500 fine. Let’s say it has 350 people onboard. That’s $9,625,000!!!! That doesn’t even seem close to fair, not to mention that would be passed down to the customer.

  5. David SFeastbay says:

    Oh and I did think the $27500.00 fine per passenger didn’t seem right. That would mean Family Airlines with that 500 passenger 747 would have to pay almost $14 million as a fine…….lol

  6. Neil S says:

    Domestic flights cannot remain on the ramp for more than 3 hours unless there is a safety or security reason or if it “significantly disrupt airport operations.”

    Doesn’t this give the airlines a giant “out” anyway? I can see them always saying it would disrupt airport ops – no gates, no free taxiways, etc. Look at what happens at LGA almost every day, bad weather or not, and tell me how they’re going to get people off planes after 3 hours.

  7. You mention alot of “dumb” moves that caused pax of that CO flight to be trapped on that plane for 9 hours within sight of the terminal.

    That is exactly the problem. Until the airlines stop treating people like inconvenient cargo, and start treating them like actual human beings… the government is going to get its grubby hands on things and probably make things worse.

    Have things been put into place by all airlines to prevent these “dumb moves” from happening again?

    The bottom line is, people should not be held captive on an airplane with an over-flowing lavatory and no drinking water for hours on end because an airline employee just can’t be bothered, or some stupid airline/airport rule is preventing it.

    Whatever the “dumb moves” were that had the plane land in RST, the situation for those people trapped on that plane is 100%, absolutely inexcusable. Period.

  8. Jay says:

    So, the law wouldn’t have forced the airlines to get the passengers off of that Continental Express flight, even if they knew there were possible fines……

    But it’s going to force airlines to cancel flights and turn around and head back to the gate at exactly thee hours?

    Why is it the law will force the airlines to take action in one situation but not the other?

  9. The flexibility and “empowered” decision making that leads to eight hour tarmac strands is exactly what will cancel the flights as you mentioned above.

    I find it absurd that if you’re on the tarmac awaiting a small mechanical fix, then head to de-ice, then await a long runway queue – if 2:50 is coming up the “law” now states you have to go back to the gate?

    Only a busybody bureaucratic ninny with a stopwatch would actually WANT to return to the gate, rather than stick out another 15 minutes to departure.

    it’s cliche to say but it’s another example of rules/laws made to protect us that actually make our lives more complicated.

  10. SK says:

    I think the example of a flight being cancelled at the 2h45, even though it’s approaching to being #1 for takeoff will be taken care of by the “significantly disrupt airport operations” provision that you mentioned (and that Neil S was also alluding to), and will indeed depart even after 3 hrs on the tarmac.

  11. 250k flier says:

    Brett, it is my understanding that there is language within the ruling that provides some wiggle-room. I need to read the full report, but I had heard that they were going to allow some discretion to a pilot so that if takeoff appeared imminent the pilot could keep the plane on the taxiway past the three-hour mark.

  12. Marc says:

    I totally understand what you’re saying, but all the airlines and insiders keep saying is “let the airlines regulate themselves”…how has that worked so far? Not so well… I agree, it seemed to be alright this weekend, but history says that the airlines don’t care about their passengers at all. The airlines weren’t doing anything…not even bad press was motivating them. Someone had to do something, and so instead of the airlines working with the govt, they just opposed the govt, so now they have to live with what was created. They made the mess (or at least made the mess worse) and now they have to deal with it. It may not be great to have your trip canceled or delayed more, but I bet a lot of people would rather get off than sit in a plane for 5 or 6 hours. Oh, and I agree…water and bathrooms are the only important thing…bring your own food.

  13. AS says:

    Brett – this was not an example of your finest writing. As pointed out by many, the [extreme] example of being #1 for takeoff after 3:01 is not going to happen. It’s an extreme comment and I would have expected you to provide a more balanced view rather than calling foul.

    The government had no choice but to act. You could argue the airlines are better about strandings than ten years ago, but many would dispute that. Airline delays are common and expected, and this is after major inflation of flight block times. Airlines have consistently shown no regard for scheduling flights over airport capacity, they still allow passenger strandings to happen, and they still don’t have airport or in-air logistics down to the point where there is predictability of timelines.

    This rule will finally require airlines to have a contingency plan for bad days. That’s a good thing. It means people will be treated better in the extreme cases, and airline management (and airports) will feel it where it hurts most. That’s a good thing too. We may even see less of this “we’ve left the gate for an on time departure” nonsense when airlines know full well they aren’t pushing back more than 10 feet due to ground overcapacity and delays. Those flights should have been cancelled, or kept at the gate, in the first place.

    The unfortunate side-effect of this rule is not that more flights will be cancelled – frankly I don’t believe that and you’d be hard pressed to show hard data that could accurately single out this root cause – but rather that unfortunately, there is a “report severe delays of 30+ minutes on arrival” rule that is just going to mean more padding in airline schedules. Today, flights from NY-SFO are regularly blocked at 7 hours or so. Ten years ago, it was closer to 6. A year from now, I would not be surprised to see them blocked at 8 hours, just to avoid “severe delays”. All the games airlines play with their statistics…

    Come back in a year, and see how things played out. I’ll bet you’ll agree, this rule was a good thing.

  14. Live Wire says:

    Rules are black and white. By definition they create very clear cutoffs. Therefore, you will often have situations near the cutoff where people will be annoyed, inconvenienced or just plain wronged. Unfortunately you get a couple situations where pilots & airport employees didn’t think clearly (keeping passengers in an airplane on the tarmac for hours and hours) and then rules are made that will create more problems (sending a plane back to the gate when it’s #1 for departure but over the 3 hour limit by 1 minute).

  15. Marc wrote:

    I totally understand what you’re saying, but all the airlines and insiders keep saying is “let the airlines regulate themselves”…how has that worked so far? Not so well…

    Not so well? JetBlue went from having a complete mele on a snow storm to only having one airplane that missed the DOT’s rule, and their own internal rule. To me it looks like they did a pretty damn good job.

    AS wrote:

    Airlines have consistently shown no regard for scheduling flights over airport capacity, they still allow passenger strandings to happen, and they still don’t have airport or in-air logistics down to the point where there is predictability of timelines.

    In-Air logistics is primarily the domain of the FAA, not the airlines. Sure they get to choose flight paths out of a limited number of choices that make sense, but the in air part is clearly the FAA’s part, The increasing block times are to set expectations around the FAA’s inability to manage the skies properly. Oh and why don’t the airlines just schedule less flights? That’d probably be illegal due to anti-trust laws, as no airline would step back from a profitable route unless their competitor also agreed to step back to the same percentage.

    Lets stop discussing the outliers. The Rochester incident really sucked, but its one flight out of how many? Thousands per day? That is a pretty low failure rate.

    I’d really like to see people explain what they do for a living with comments, because I get the impression that the people who complain about the airlines probably have no experience in running complex systems. I’ll follow my example. I’ve never worked in the airlines, but I used to work in trucking logistics where we ran a 99.8% ontime network. I currently work in telecom and we minimize our customers downtime. In both industries failures happen, and we work on minimizing them.

  16. SirWired says:

    Yes, this rule is inflexible. But the airlines took advantage of the flexibility they had and continued to act completely surprised every time a flight got stranded for many, many, hours and the toilets overflowed.

    Yes, this rule will lead to rare situations that make little sense. But, a plane waiting “in-line” for 5+ hours also makes little sense.

    Yes, this rule is quite harsh. But gentle encouragement from the FAA to not be morons was completely ineffective.

    The airlines got EXACTLY what was coming to them. They continued to schedule flights well beyond the capacity of NYC airports to handle. They continued to strand pax on the tarmac for hours and hours with no water or working toilets. They continued to not purchase towing equipment to get empty planes shuffled away from gates. (Most hubs also have plenty of parking space… even roller stairs and a couple shuttle buses can work in a pinch.) They continued to get all shocked and unable to do a thing when big snowstorms clogged up gates at a hub. They continued to resist even a modicum of regulation for this behavior. So, the FAA, left to its own devices, came up with their own. This should surprise nobody.

  17. Oh, if I were the DOT I’d write the rule this way:
    A fine of $2,000 per passenger for any flight that sat on the ground for longer than 4 hours and that did not take off within 6 hours of leaving the gate. This’d give the airlines some reasonable incentive to make a good choice. (Not to say that they already have one..)

  18. Dirk says:

    @ Mat:

    Mat,

    The DOT already fined all three airlines involved in the incident (Continental, ExpressJet, and Mesaba) to a larger amount than the new fines would have imposed. This law not only changes absolutely nothing, it would have made it CHEAPER for the airlines.

    CF hit the nail on the head. This SOUNDS great, but in practice, it’s just going to leave a whole lot more people stuck at the airports. It simply addresses the symptom and ignores the problem.

  19. JayB says:

    Not to worry, the industry will use all of its non-existent profits for lawyers to see that the DOT rule never sees the light of day!. There’ll be stays of the rule until the next century!

    But, if the industry doesn’t like the DOT rule, why doesn’t the industry, or least some airline, step up and say to the traveling public: “Look, we’re not waiting 4 months to get the “heart” of this rule into play. Here is what we’re going to do to see that these nightmares end. Please understand we operate subject to weather, ATC, airports, local highway maintainers, none of which we control. And, we have some labor laws and rules we have to live with, but that’s our problem and we’re not going to bore you about that. Likewise, we sometimes use regional carriers to serve various routes in lieu of us flying our own planes. Again, that’s our problem and you shouldn’t worry as to those arrangements. But, for our part, here are the rules, timeframes, provisions, what have you, which you’ll note mirror the DOT rule. No “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” If we screw up, here’s what we’ll do for you. And, if you can’t live with this, don’t fly with us.”

    Unfortunately, this industry hasn’t stepped up to the plate and dealt with its customers openly and honestly, or much of anything else. Yes, there are some wonderful, wonderful people who work tirelesssly, often unappreciated in this industry, but the public is fed up! If the industry doesn’t like what DOT has done, it must, must fix it itself, but many of us believe that ain’t going to happen! So DOT, go to it, and if that sends a couple of carriers off the face of the earth, so be it!

  20. Johnny Jet says:

    Cranky – Are you crazy?! Who wants to sit on the runway for even an hour?

  21. Pingback: OPINION: DOT Requires Airlines to Have Bill of Rights | Airline Reporter | A Blog on the airline industry

  22. Pingback: Free Flight Video Magazine » Blog Archive » OPINION: DOT Requires Airlines to Have Bill of Rights

  23. Steve says:

    I think that the key here is that Tower can tell planes that it would be disruptive for them to return to the terminal and we are stuck in line anyway. Why would we expect food service on the ground in 2 hours when we don’t get it for 6 hour flights? Hmm.

    Oh well.. no one ever accused the government of thinking. However, I do think that it would have resolved the Rochester MN incident. There was nothing to disrupt other than the sleep of the Mesaba agents.

  24. Mat says:


    The DOT already fined all three airlines involved in the incident (Continental, ExpressJet, and Mesaba) to a larger amount than the new fines would have imposed.

    But they fined them after the fact – at the time the people acting as dumb as rocks didn’t expect any consequences and based on past practice they had no reason to believe they would be held accountable.

    They were.

    Now that’s enshrined in regulation.

  25. Dan says:

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    I really don’t get the 2hr rule for food. Since so many flights in the U.S. don’t service food where is this food going to appear from? So after 2 hours some how they will bring food to the plane while it’s on the taxi way inching closer to the end of the runway for take off? Or will the plane have to ‘pull over’ for lunch and then get back in line for another hour and lunch time won’t count for the 3 hour rule?
    I’m not going to read some 81 page rule on this so if anyone else does, let us know how meal time will be handled 2 hours into a 3 hour rule.
    Washington had to do something to please the voters so now they can say there’s a rule so don’t get on our cases anymore.

    I read the first 30 or so pages of the document. Under the “food” provision, the ruling states that existing snacks, such as pretzels and granola bars are acceptable.

  26. ttjoseph says:

    CF, you make it sound like this rule is going to ruin air travel. What is the distribution of delayed-on-the-ramp times at present? What percentage of flights fall at the 3-hour mark, or near enough to it to cause proactive cancellation? Without this information it’s impossible to form an informed opinion.

  27. Dan says:

    Crank,

    I have to agree with those who think you have missed the mark on this one.

    First, you comment that certain passengers will be inconvenienced unnecessarily — namely, those that are #3 in line at 2:59:59 after crawling along the taxi way, and that they’ll be forced to turn around.

    I believe you’re mistaken on this part. On page 17 of the NPRM that you linked to, the DOT says this:

    “The final rule requires that each plan include, at a minimum, the following: (1) an assurance that, for domestic flights, the air carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless the pilot-in-command determines there is a safety-related or security-related impediment to deplaning passengers (e.g. weather, air traffic control, a directive from an appropriate government agency, etc.), or Air Traffic Control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate or permitting passengers to disembark elsewhere would significantly disrupt airport operations;”

    I know you know this, but a taxi-way is NOT a tarmac. So I’m not convinced that an aircraft clearly queued up for departure would be affected, whereas it is clear that an aircraft parked in a holding area would be.

    Second, I wholeheartedly support the requirement that the carriers have a formalized plan to deal with this stuff. Things may have gotten better over the years, but I do believe that the DOT is correct when it says passengers should have some hard limit that they can count on.

    Third, the food issue is a little weird. The DOT expressly permits the issuance of peanuts, pretzels, and granola bars as an acceptable way to meet the requirement. However, if you’re going to deplane at the three hour mark anyway, who cares about so little sustenance?

    Well, let me tell you a recent story: A couple of weeks ago (Dec 8, when ORD was getting nailed but good with snow), I flew UA 777 (IAD-LAS). We figured we’d just by food on board, or eat in Las Vegas when we got in — it was a 5:15pm departure (we eat closer to 10pm than 5pm, so eating on arrival wouldn’t be terrible). Well, shortly after takeoff, we developed an issue with the door seal, and the captain made the decision to divert to STL to have it checked out. We spent 2.5 hours on the ground there, and weren’t let off the plane. UA broke out the granola bars, and didn’t bother with a BOB pass through because they didn’t have enough food. By the time we ended up landing in LAS, it was about 1am east coast time. Yes, those granola bars made a difference. All said and done, that flight ended up blocked at 8 hours.

    Finally, with regard to jetBlue: A few years ago, the carrier had an operational strategy that tried to get passengers where they intended to go, no matter how long the delay. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, jetBlue employed this strategy during the major snow storm of Presidents Day weekend in 2003, and they raked up a ton of surface delays. (This can be verified or discredited by looking at BTS data for Feb 15-18 2003… ) This year, they employed a pre-cancellation strategy, possibly, as you say, to avoid public backlash. Couldn’t you also say that they were reacting to market conditions?

    Truth be told, these long delays are at the far right of the statistical tail in terms of frequency of occurrence. Once you get to this point, it’s fair to say that nobody “expected” delays to get this long, and that it was a comedy of errors (or at least a succession of them) that extended the delays to this point. Given that, I think it’s reasonable to draw a hard line and let those off who want to get off.

  28. Dan says:

    ttjoseph wrote:

    CF, you make it sound like this rule is going to ruin air travel. What is the distribution of delayed-on-the-ramp times at present? What percentage of flights fall at the 3-hour mark, or near enough to it to cause proactive cancellation? Without this information it’s impossible to form an informed opinion.

    It’s really small, as I alluded to in the rather long post I wrote above. I do believe CF is exaggerating the effects here.

  29. “Bring your own food” isn’t necessarily a viable option … not with the TSA involved. With their restrictions regarding liquids and gels, it’s not clear to me what would happen if I came to the checkpoint with several PB&J sandwiches for my family. (What’s even worse … if I just brought a jar of peanut butter, I know it’d be confiscated …)

  30. David SFeastbay says:

    Dan wrote:

    David SFeastbay wrote:
    I really don’t get the 2hr rule for food. Since so many flights in the U.S. don’t service food where is this food going to appear from? So after 2 hours some how they will bring food to the plane while it’s on the taxi way inching closer to the end of the runway for take off? Or will the plane have to ‘pull over’ for lunch and then get back in line for another hour and lunch time won’t count for the 3 hour rule?
    I’m not going to read some 81 page rule on this so if anyone else does, let us know how meal time will be handled 2 hours into a 3 hour rule.
    Washington had to do something to please the voters so now they can say there’s a rule so don’t get on our cases anymore.
    I read the first 30 or so pages of the document. Under the “food” provision, the ruling states that existing snacks, such as pretzels and granola bars are acceptable.

    Thanks Dan, so they hand out all the snacks while still sitting on the ground and when they finally take off there will be none for that 3-4hr flight…..lol

  31. frank says:

    Cranky! Awesome article.

    You nailed it. All the airline has to do to prevent a violation of this new law is……….drum roll…………..CANCEL.

    How’s Hanni gonna feel when all those passengers get STRANDED at the gate?

    And how ironic. Alot of the time the FAA (govt) doesnt give these delays until you’ve already left the gate.

  32. CF says:

    Lots to respond to here, so I apologize if I miss something.

    David SFeastbay wrote:

    I’m not going to read some 81 page rule on this so if anyone else does, let us know how meal time will be handled 2 hours into a 3 hour rule.

    You don’t need to read the whole thing. The actual wording of the rule begins on page 72. The rest is mostly background and responding to comments on the preliminary rulemaking.

    Ron wrote:

    I thought one of the reasons for long tarmac delays was that planes can’t get in line for takeoff until they’ve pushed back. What’s the rationale for that?

    Yes, that’s true. If the FAA wanted to rework the rules to allow airplanes to stay at the gate until it was their turn for departure, well that would probably go a lot further to reducing tarmac delays on departure. But all those planes sitting at the gate means that more airplanes would get stuck on arrival. There’s no easy solution.

    Mat wrote:

    First of all your Rochester example is EXACTLY why this regulation is needed. If everybody involved in that debacle had known that after 3 hours it was going to cost real money those people would have been off the plane.

    I find it hard to believe that some kid working the night shift in Rochester Minnesota is really going to feel like it’s money out of his pocket. The reality is that there already was a rule out there. Continental has a strict internal policy that requires people be let off at 3 hours. Things don’t always go as planned, and that’s just the way it is when there are so many moving parts. It’s a very small number.

    Mat wrote:

    Secondly the regulation has all kinds of outs for the airlines, including the fact that if ATC and the PIC say you can’t get out of line then you can’t, and that would almost certainly apply in the case where you were number 1 for departure.

    I can’t imagine that the DOT is going to allow airlines to just pull out the “it’s not safe” card all the time. The number of planes stuck for over 3 hours is very tiny, so I’m sure that any time someone pulls the “it’s not safe” card, there will be a thorough review to see if that was legitimate or not. Getting out of line rarely disrupts airport operations. Sure, there are some times where it will clog up the flow, but for the most part, that’s not an issue.

    Mat wrote:

    Finally – if the airlines could be trusted to address this problem that would be one thing, but they’ve been promising a solution for years and yet people still get stuck on aircraft. This regulation will do what shouldn’t be necessary, motivate the airlines to provide a minimal level of customer service. The service they provide is the timely transportation of people – if they can’t achieve that then it’s going to cost them.

    Very few people get stuck on aircraft – you just hear about it when it happens so it seems like a lot. The airlines have done a lot to address this problem up to this point.

    Neil S wrote:

    Doesn’t this give the airlines a giant “out” anyway? I can see them always saying it would disrupt airport ops – no gates, no free taxiways, etc. Look at what happens at LGA almost every day, bad weather or not, and tell me how they’re going to get people off planes after 3 hours.

    The airlines don’t get to say that it will disrupt airport ops. The wording specifically says “air traffic control advises the pilot-in-command that returning to the gate . . . would significantly disrupt airport operations.” The pilot can only claim that it’s a safety or security issue.

    Claystation wrote:

    You mention alot of “dumb” moves that caused pax of that CO flight to be trapped on that plane for 9 hours within sight of the terminal.
    That is exactly the problem. Until the airlines stop treating people like inconvenient cargo, and start treating them like actual human beings… the government is going to get its grubby hands on things and probably make things worse.
    Have things been put into place by all airlines to prevent these “dumb moves” from happening again?

    Actually, yes. I spoke with ExpressJet and they said that the biggest issue is that this wasn’t elevated to a high enough level quickly enough. So they’ve put hard procedures in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Also, they’ve added flags in their computers to start alerting when this is a problem anywhere in the system. So yes, they have done things and technology continues to allow better solutions.

    Jay wrote:

    So, the law wouldn’t have forced the airlines to get the passengers off of that Continental Express flight, even if they knew there were possible fines……
    But it’s going to force airlines to cancel flights and turn around and head back to the gate at exactly thee hours?
    Why is it the law will force the airlines to take action in one situation but not the other?

    I didn’t mean to imply that the law wouldn’t have applied. It certainly would have applied, but for at least part of the time there was a safety issue related to lightning and rain on the ramp. But the reality is that this shouldn’t have happened even with existing rules in place by the airlines. People just screwed up and failed to use common sense.

    Marc wrote:

    I totally understand what you’re saying, but all the airlines and insiders keep saying is “let the airlines regulate themselves”…how has that worked so far? Not so well

    I’m with Nicholas here. I think the airlines do a remarkable job of running an operation. Can they do better? I’d sure hope so, but if you look at the complexity of this kind of operation, they’re doing a pretty decent job on the whole.

    AS wrote:

    You could argue the airlines are better about strandings than ten years ago, but many would dispute that. Airline delays are common and expected, and this is after major inflation of flight block times. Airlines have consistently shown no regard for scheduling flights over airport capacity, they still allow passenger strandings to happen, and they still don’t have airport or in-air logistics down to the point where there is predictability of timelines.

    If the feds have a problem with airline overscheduling, then that’s what slot controls are for. The airlines don’t need to self-police. The FAA has to tell them what they can and can’t do.

    Nicholas Barnard wrote:

    Oh and why don’t the airlines just schedule less flights? That’d probably be illegal due to anti-trust laws, as no airline would step back from a profitable route unless their competitor also agreed to step back to the same percentage.

    Actually, that’s what’s happening in Chicago. Slots are gone, but American and United both agreed to reduce their capacity in order to keep traffic manageable. But remember, JFK already has flight caps. If it’s not working well, then the feds should tweak that.

    SirWired wrote:

    They continued to schedule flights well beyond the capacity of NYC airports to handle.

    Again, not their responsibility. There are flight caps in place. If they aren’t adequate, then the feds should adjust those numbers.

    JayB wrote:

    But, if the industry doesn’t like the DOT rule, why doesn’t the industry, or least some airline, step up and say to the traveling public: “Look, we’re not waiting 4 months to get the “heart” of this rule into play. Here is what we’re going to do to see that these nightmares end.

    We have seen that in some cases. Many airlines have implemented rules, but JetBlue has probably been the most proactive. After the Valentine’s Day meltdown, they created their own customer bill of rights:
    http://www.jetblue.com/about/ourcompany/promise/index.html

    So when people do get stuck on planes, they get paid. Maybe the DOT should split the fee revenue with the passengers who get stuck.

    ttjoseph wrote:

    CF, you make it sound like this rule is going to ruin air travel. What is the distribution of delayed-on-the-ramp times at present? What percentage of flights fall at the 3-hour mark, or near enough to it to cause proactive cancellation? Without this information it’s impossible to form an informed opinion.

    This info is put out monthly by the DOT in the Air Travel Consumer Report. The most recent month out is October. Out of 531,799 flights operated by reporting carriers, 12 were stuck on the ramp for more than 3 hours. So this rule is mean to impact an unbelievably tiny percentage of people yet the impact will be larger than that in a negative way.

    Dan wrote:

    I know you know this, but a taxi-way is NOT a tarmac. So I’m not convinced that an aircraft clearly queued up for departure would be affected, whereas it is clear that an aircraft parked in a holding area would be.

    I don’t buy it. The intent of the rule is clearly to apply to people being stuck on an airplane on the ground. Tarmac is actually a type of material, so the airlines could try to say it doesn’t apply if they aren’t on that specific type of material. Ain’t gonna happen.

    Dan wrote:

    This year, they employed a pre-cancellation strategy, possibly, as you say, to avoid public backlash. Couldn’t you also say that they were reacting to market conditions?

    Sure. People were really mad that they were stuck on those planes for so long. Now you have a lot of people made because their flights were canceled. You really can’t win, but the press is better when people aren’t stuck in the plane so that’s certainly the right way to go for them.

  33. Pingback: OPINION: DOT Requires Airlines to Have Bill of Rights | Airline Workers Unite.

  34. gorewest says:

    @ David SFeastbay:
    More government b.s.

  35. Dan says:

    CF Wrote:

    “I don’t buy it. The intent of the rule is clearly to apply to people being stuck on an airplane on the ground. Tarmac is actually a type of material, so the airlines could try to say it doesn’t apply if they aren’t on that specific type of material. Ain’t gonna happen.”

    So why don’t you buy it, and ain’t it gonna happen? If the intent of the rule is clearly to apply to people being stuck on an airplane on the ground, why do you think it applies to aircraft queued up for departure? I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will argue that being queued up in a moving line progressing toward the runway is being “stuck” for the purposes of this rule. (FWIW, I dislike the term “tarmac” as used in this rulemaking. I worked on airport ramps for 7 years, and never once did we use the term “tarmac.”)

    Further, the definition on page 75 for “tarmac delay” says this:
    “(f) Tarmac delay means the holding of an aircraft on the ground either before taking off or after landing with no opportunity for its passengers to deplane.” I think it’s pretty hard to argue that aircraft queued up for departure are being “held” on the ground. “Held” implies that an aircraft is not moving, and I don’t think any reasonable person would argue that an aircraft on the taxi-way queued up for departure is being “held” on the ground.

    And furthermore, the last sentence on page 75 says this:
    “(1) for domestic flights, assurance that the air carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours unless:[...]”

    Again, I dislike the use of the term “tarmac” because tarmac is a colloquial term, not an officially recognized ATC term. Commonly used terms to describe elements of the airport surface are: Movement area, non-movement area, ramp, apron, taxi-way, and runway.

    In fact, I even consulted the pilot/controller glossary for a definition (it’s a comprehensive list of terms used in the air traffic control system) and it doesn’t list “tarmac” at all. So, absent a more authoritative interpretation, I wouldn’t assume that the rule applies in the manner in which you think it does.

  36. I thought I might give this tiresome issue a pass but, hey, two cents is two cents.

    Background: I used to work airport operations as the ramp coordinator and man-in-charge for a major airline. In nearly ten years I’ve dealt with central operations, flight control, the feds, the airport tower and both professional and pushy pilots so I know a lot of what I speak.

    This “rule” it seems to me will apply almost entirely to arrivals, not departures. Why? Simple. People want to get where there going, crew included. They only earn money in the air plus they have families to manage as much as the customers do. While those same customers may grumble and grouse about long delays waiting for take-off, they’d all rather get airborne than go back to the gate for some 3-hour rule.

    I’ve sat on taxiways myself and held flights off for hours on end while on duty and waiting for a gate to open up due to bad weather or other problem that causes back ups and congestion. Those are arrivals. The only time a flight ever wants to come back once it’s LEFT the gate is for more fuel. Even at taxi-idle airlines don’t dispatch flights with enough fuel for a three-hour take-off hold. Procedures at my airline were to taxi out, shut down and run the APU until either they received clearence to take-off or fell below minimums and then, only then, went back for more.

    Mechanicals, medical emergencies and customer demands to be off-loaded do occur but the vast majority of returns after lengthy departure holds are simply because they burned too much fuel to make the trip and still have acceptable reserves for the primary alternate.

    Not once in ten years did any pilot or planeload of passengers ever come back to one of my gates because the wait to take off just wasn’t worth it. At my former employer we used all the tricks, including the 10-foot push to show “out” either for crew time or departure statistics. The general consensus was always “at least we’re finally leaving.”

    That said, what makes all the headlines? The arrival delays. Short trips followed by long delays or even long flights made worse by equally long waits for gates are the media makers. Part of the problem, yes, is over-scheduling but another factor not addressed much here is the airlines themselves who schedule back-to-back flights at gates with little room to spare between the departing flight and the next arrival at the same gate.

    That’s not FAA slot control, that’s ground asset utilization. American at DFW is famous for sending nearly as many arrivals to the penalty box as soon as they land compared to the ones who actually make it straight to the gate in any kind of weather. Throw slots and ATC “flow-control” in to that soup and just pass the hard-crust bread cuz it gets real thick pretty quick.

    The blame game is as old as the industry itself, whether it is over-scheduling or antiquated air traffic techologies. The reality is the same…unnecessary expense and customer inconvenience. I agree with others who wrote that one minute over three hours is an exaggeration regarding a departure. That pilot would be playing with his life if he made that “back-to-the-gate” announcement to his customers.

    One minute over three hours after an arrival, however, is quite a different story. Time’s up, either get a gate or get a bus cuz we’re outta here.

  37. SirWired says:

    Cranky,

    Surely you remember that the FAA tried for years to implement slot auctions (with the hopes that carriers would use something they paid for more wisely (i.e. larger planes) than something that exists almost solely to block other airlines (i.e. endless commuter flights.)) This was to be combined with a slot reduction.

    The airlines and PANYNJ both fought it tooth and nail and the proposal was defeated.

    The airlines cannot fight slot reductions (or proposals to use the slots more intelligently) and then turn around and complain about “ATC Delays” that are caused by too many planes. (The slot auctions were a good idea vs. just yanking slots from random airlines.)

  38. CF says:

    Dan wrote:

    So why don’t you buy it, and ain’t it gonna happen? If the intent of the rule is clearly to apply to people being stuck on an airplane on the ground, why do you think it applies to aircraft queued up for departure?

    I agree that tarmac is a bad word to use b/c it’s not really well-defined. So let’s say that there’s a thunderstorm at Newark and planes are scattered all over. It’s now 2:50 after push back and the plane is currently #35 for departure. Will they allow that to keep going because it’s on a taxiway? Where do they draw the line?

    SirWired wrote:

    The airlines cannot fight slot reductions (or proposals to use the slots more intelligently) and then turn around and complain about “ATC Delays” that are caused by too many planes.

    The airlines didn’t find slot reductions but rather the method for allocating slots. IIRC, the numbers that are in place today are the same numbers they would have used with slot auctions – it was just the process the airlines didn’t like.

  39. Ron says:

    thetravelingoptimist wrote:

    That’s not FAA slot control, that’s ground asset utilization.

    I read somewhere that for container shipping, the optimal utilization of docks is about 50%; try to push utilization higher (that is, build fewer docks), and any savings will be eaten up by the ensuing delays. Could something similar be true for airport gates?

  40. Dan says:

    Ron wrote:

    thetravelingoptimist wrote:
    That’s not FAA slot control, that’s ground asset utilization.

    I read somewhere that for container shipping, the optimal utilization of docks is about 50%; try to push utilization higher (that is, build fewer docks), and any savings will be eaten up by the ensuing delays. Could something similar be true for airport gates?

    Hard to say. When I worked for UAX at IAD, we had what I would refer to as a “strict” bank structure, where flights would come in all at once (well, over about a 45 minute period) and leave over a period of the same duration. We would use about 95% of our gates (with a regional operation, I’m sure there was a space or two available). But the key with that operation was that once the flights left, there was a three-hour or so slack until the next arrival. So we could use all of the gates with no issues. Contrast that to our operation at ORD, where things were more of a continuous flow with 20-minute slack between flights. During bad weather, gate congestion and cascading delays were the norm.

    So I guess it depends on how the operation is laid out.

  41. sntheorist says:

    Something I don’t quite get in all this discussion is the gate issue. It has happened to me too: this summer I was on my way to Frankfurt via Toronto. Once on the ground in Toronto, we were informed that there were no open gates due to a thunderstorm that had just passed and… bingo, we had to wait about 2 hours before we could get a gate and deplane.

    So no gates — why not use stairs and busses? It’s not clear to me why US/Canadian airports/airlines are so fixed on using gates. It is a completely common and usual thing in the rest of the world to use stairs and buses if the gates are full. This happens in FRA and AMS (just as examples) _all the time_. They will happily board/deplane a 747 or an A346 with stairs and do this regularly. Why can’t this be done in North America? Couldn’t at least this side of the tarmac delay issue be fixed by mandating that any airport (or airline, depending how the operation is run) have as many stairs and buses (and drivers/operators) available as there are gates in the terminal? This would allow them to have twice the deplaning capacity!

  42. Dan says:

    CF wrote:
    “I agree that tarmac is a bad word to use b/c it’s not really well-defined. So let’s say that there’s a thunderstorm at Newark and planes are scattered all over. It’s now 2:50 after push back and the plane is currently #35 for departure. Will they allow that to keep going because it’s on a taxiway? Where do they draw the line?”

    Well, in a case like this, “it depends.” I would imagine that in this scenario, these flights are caught up in an active Ground Delay Program. Is the GDP over? If the flight has been released from the program, and there is progress made toward departure, then yes, they will be allowed to stay. But I imagine that if they are still caught in an active program, and the earliest they will be released from it is 3:01, then no, they will have to go back to the gate.

    As an aside… much as you say internal progress is being made on the excessive tarmac delay front, so is progress being made on how the FAA runs delay programs. Hopefully, in the years to come, these delays will become fewer in fewer. But in the mean time, I don’t object to a line being drawn.

  43. David SFeastbay says:

    sntheorist wrote:

    So no gates — why not use stairs and busses?

    That might depend on the airport itself. LAX has remote stands that if need be will be used to unload a plane and use buses they have to bring pax to the terminal. I’ve known people who have used them after landing when the gates were full. It may take a little longer to board a bus and get to the terminal, but it’s still faster then waiting for a gate to open.

    Once flying into LAX on an AA MD80 the only open gate had a broken jetway. So instead of making us wait for one to open, they stopped the plane near the gate and put the rear stairs down and we did things the old fashion way. We walked down the stairs and to the terminal. They didn’t even have us walk up the jetway steps but to the main building (Terminal 3).

    So at an airport that may have snow, you would think they could keep an area clear to use stairs/buses to unload is right. But here in the U.S. some idiot from Homeland Security will say doing that would permit terrorist to run off into the snow to blow up something at a major airport or some other stupid reason.

  44. sntheorist and ron…

    Gates…

    They are all at once a complete pain in the backside to own and operate (airline perspective) but a customer comfort and convenience device (customer perspective) as well as a ground security instrument (all concerned perspective).

    They cost a lot, they break a lot and inflict major damage on people and planes if the driver doesn’t know what he or she is doing. I saw one punch through the skin of an airplane one day cuz the driver did not have the correct angle set for that airplane as she approached it. Airlines actually hate them but simply can’t avoid using them.

    Most customers prefer climate controlled conditions from the airplane to the curb so jetways/jetbridges provide some shelter from heat, cold and wet weather. The ones in Hong Kong blast freezing air during the height of their summer, unlike the toaster conditions in the ones around Texas. Walking across the tarmac (nudge, nudge) may be all nostalgic and romantic until the skies open up and it’s an absolute downpour. Only the open air terminal at Palm Springs generally avoids that possibility all year long.

    Security is a huge factor in gates and bridges. It’s considered a “sealed” environment that doesn’t allow confused or determined civilians to go wandering off in to places they don’t belong and either creating a lot of chaos or getting in harm’s way.

    As to available gates, let’s say AA at DFW has 56 assigned to them exclusively. That’s the max number of flights that can handled during any one “bank,” “complex” or “push.” Each of those can probably handle the smallest narrow-body in the fleet but maybe 15 of them at the most can handle the widebodies. Of those 15 only six of those are capable of handling the 777/747/A380 sized planes and then not without sacrificing one or two gates on the other side.

    You may land one day, be told that your gate is unavailable but see gates all over the place that are wide open. That speaks to how the gate management system is set up. Parking a plane just anywhere means potentially disrupting the alignment of gates later on and having to spend the entire day scrambling and shuffling flights, gate agents and ramp crews to keep the whole thing going. Better to just hold your one flight off for a bit than upset the apple cart a couple hundred times over.

    Finally, if bad weather hits inside the airport fence, no busses or other devices will travel to remote locations to bring customers to the terminal. Lightnight strikes have killed ramp workers so no airline will risk personnel or liability in those conditions. You’re stuck until the all clear is given.

    The key is the location of the storm. Inside the airport and even FRA and AMS will shut down. If it’s just on the edges, any airport can operate, especially FRA, who remote parks about a third of its traffic every day.

  45. Of course, we could always handle flight delays the same way that Wall Street handles its problems …

    http://baselinescenario.com/2009/12/21/if-wall-street-ran-the-airlines/

  46. Oops…”lightnight” = lightning.

    DavidSFEastBay is correct. If a plane arrives (in acceptable weather) and the bridge is broken, sometimes the back stairs will be used or a portable stair case deployed to off-load customers if the wait to fix the jetbridge is too long. In those cases extra personnel are called in to supervise and make sure nobody wanders off.

    Now comes the nightmare scenario for the airline. Murphy’s law always says that the affected flight will have a wheelchair passenger on board. Some can manage the stairs but need a wheelchair at the bottom. Others can’t handle stairs at all and the ramp crew has to get “creative.”

    I’ve seen everything used from a cabin service truck, a catering truck to a small hydraulic portable lift of the kind generally reserved for commuter aircraft to serve these customers and maintain some kind of dignity for them and the airline. The self-absorbed high-mileage flyer may huff and bluster but it’s the disabled that get kid-glove treatment in situations like that.

  47. Steve says:

    @ Mat:
    Mat – your naive to think that every problem needs legislation. The DOT did fine Continental Express,Mesaba and Continental for the Rochester debacle as they should have. Legislation wasn’t needed to do that. I certainly hate delays of even one minute but I rather be delayed then have to scramble to find an alternative flight because my flight was cancelled as a result of this legislation.

  48. Bill says:

    As a pilot I can tell you that an airplane leaving the line to return to terminal is not unsafe, and will not be prohibited by Tower. If the airplane has room to safely to do this, it will be allowed. If you are #1 for takeoff, by definition you have room. This is not a loophole that can be exploited to exceed 3 hr. @ Steve:

  49. Dan says:

    Steve wrote:

    @ Mat:
    Mat – your naive to think that every problem needs legislation. The DOT did fine Continental Express,Mesaba and Continental for the Rochester debacle as they should have. Legislation wasn’t needed to do that. I certainly hate delays of even one minute but I rather be delayed then have to scramble to find an alternative flight because my flight was cancelled as a result of this legislation.

    Stupid question, but what about the guy who thinks enough is enough and would rather wait for the next flight? Some cities are served as frequently as every hour. (I know that’s actually quite rare… one statistic that would be interesting would be to look at the frequencies between cities to see if a mean (average) wait time until next flight could be established. When I worked for UAX, a vast majority of our cities were served 4-5x per day… usually 4 hours between flights)

  50. CF says:

    Dan wrote:

    Stupid question, but what about the guy who thinks enough is enough and would rather wait for the next flight? Some cities are served as frequently as every hour. (I know that’s actually quite rare… one statistic that would be interesting would be to look at the frequencies between cities to see if a mean (average) wait time until next flight could be established. When I worked for UAX, a vast majority of our cities were served 4-5x per day… usually 4 hours between flights)

    If there’s a long delay, there’s a good chance that the weather is bad and flights are canceling. (Not always, I know, but there is a good chance.) So sure, there might be someone who can wait until the next flight and get on but the chances of everyone else on the plane having that same suck is slim. Why not just drop him off at the gate and then go back out? Once you get back to the gate, crews may go illegal and then everyone may be screwed if the weather is bad.

  51. wb says:

    @ Ron:
    Yes, and every resturant that gets your order wrong will now by law need to give you a free airline ticket

  52. Ron –

    I forgot to answer your question about gate utilization as compared to 50% utility for long-shore docks. The answer essentially is yes, there is a “sweet spot” with gates where having too few will cost a lot in delays and disruptions. Equally, having too many will cost just as much in wasted expense.

    Airlines plan the number of gates based on the high-water mark for traffic during any given day which, typically is early to mid-afternoon. That’s when the west coast flights hit Dallas, Chicago and other mid-west connecting points to east coast destinations. Absolutely every usable aircraft in the fleet is in the air and heading somewhere so they need room.

    If for any reason there is a disruption and suddenly there are more planes coming than can be physically accommodated there are a ton of options open to the airline depending on the city (hub or outpost) and weather. From the farthest point out they can..

    a) “Gate Hold” the flight at the departure city.
    b) Put the less critical flights in to a holding pattern (plenty of fuel, no medical emergencies or large group connections)
    c) Divert the marginal flights (running on empty)
    d) Land the critical flights if possible (already on final, tight/large connections, medical or mechanical issues)
    e) “Borrow” a gate from another airline (usually the outpost cities) long enough to work the flight and get it out of the way.

    Each flight, date, airport and weather scenario is different, as you can imagine but the long and short is, each airline plans enough gates for a normal operation. They wish they had more during a bad-hair day but they’d end up owning resources than they typically need all across the country.

    Kinda like snow-removal equipment in Phoenix. Who’s gonna spend all that money for something they might use once in ten years?

  53. Nice post Cranky!

    Thanks for the link to the ruling. I now have some reading matter for my next couple of flights to take closer look.

  54. short hop says:

    I actually agree with the ruling. It simply means that airports and airlines will have to do better prep work. People are not cattle, in that you can just put us anywhere. If there are 45 planes waiting for takeoff then putting people on a plane is just putting them into a cramped, uncomfortable, and smelly waiting room. A person is a intelligent, thoughtful, and reasonable being. People are frantic, nervous, dangerous, short tempered, unstable, creatures of comfort. Putting them on a plane with no where to go for three hours is a gamble at best. This shows more of a lack of technological integration and logistics more than anything. This ruling may be actually protecting the airlines from a very terrible outcome. Any physiologist can tell you that the wrong mixture of people in this situation can lead to a catastrophic situation. I also bet an airline would rather deplane and face no lawsuit than to have someone dead and facing a class action.

  55. Pingback: patrick ainge » NYT: A Win For Airline Passengers(?)

  56. Pingback: Passenger Bill of Rights, DOT Style « Aviation

  57. Pingback: US Passenger Bill of Rights - Musings of The Global Traveller

  58. Pingback: Kate Hanni and I Talk About Delays, We Disagree (Part One) - Testing blog – Don't change this title to the same as onther blog

  59. Pingback: New Tarmac Delay Rule Draws Praise, Criticism | AeroChannel test

Leave a Reply

Please use your real name or nickname instead of your company name or keyword spam.