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.

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59 Comments on "DOT Mandates Passenger Bill of Rights and I’m Not Happy"

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David SF eastbay
Member
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… Read more »
Ron
Guest

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?

Mat
Guest
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… Read more »
david
Member

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.

David SF eastbay
Member

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

Neil S
Guest

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.

Claystation
Guest
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… Read more »
Jay
Guest

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?

James Van Dellen
Guest
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… Read more »
SK
Guest

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.

Henry Harteveldt
Member

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.

Marc
Guest
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… Read more »
AS
Guest
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… Read more »
Live Wire
Guest

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).

Nick Barnard
Member
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… Read more »
SirWired
Guest
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… Read more »
Nick Barnard
Member

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..)

Dirk
Guest

@ 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.

jaybru
Member
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… Read more »
johnny
Member

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

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[…] a recent post, Brett Snyder with CrankyFlier greatly details the annoyances arising from the Department of Transportation (DOT) passing a passenger bil…. The DOT’s action comes after multiple  incidents of passengers being stuck on the tarmac […]

Steve
Guest

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.

Mat
Guest


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.

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
ttjoseph
Guest

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.

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
Dan
Guest

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.

Jim Huggins
Guest

“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 …)

David SF eastbay
Member
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… Read more »
frank
Guest

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.

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[…] a recent post, Brett Snyder with CrankyFlier greatly details the annoyances arising from the Department of Transportation (DOT) passing a passenger bil…. The DOT’s action comes after multiple  incidents of passengers being stuck on the tarmac […]

gorewest
Guest

@ David SFeastbay:
More government b.s.

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
thetravelingoptimist
Guest
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… Read more »
SirWired
Guest
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… Read more »
Ron
Guest

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?

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
sntheorist
Guest
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… Read more »
Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
David SF eastbay
Member
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… Read more »
The Traveling Optimist
Guest
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… Read more »
Jim Huggins
Guest

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/

The Traveling Optimist
Guest
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… Read more »
Steve
Guest

@ 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.

Bill
Guest

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:

Dan
Guest
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… Read more »
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