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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