New law limits time airlines can keep passengers on planes |

New law limits time airlines can keep passengers on planes

Ann Schrader
The Denver Post
FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2007 file photo, Kate Hanni, founder of the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, center, instructs participants inside a mock-up to simulate the airplane cabin experience during a demonstration located on the National Mall in Washington. After years of sparring between passionate passenger advocates and defiant airlines, the government has stepped in. An airline now has to let you off the plane after three hours or face a potentially huge fine. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, file)

Beginning today, airlines face stiff fines if passengers are stranded on aircraft longer than three hours.

The federal rule, called “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections,” was developed in response to consumer complaints about tarmac delays in recent years.

Aircraft cannot remain on the tarmac more than three hours without letting passengers get off, the new rule states. The fine? Up to $27,500 per passenger on the flight.

“Wow, that’s pretty steep,” said Marcus Crosby of Thornton, who like several other Denver-area residents didn’t know about the rule.

The new federal rule also requires airlines to provide food and water within two hours of the aircraft being delayed and to have working lavatories.

Those basic necessities weren’t available during an incident in August that pushed the rule into existence.

For six hours, 47 passengers were trapped on the ground in Minnesota on an ExpressJet flight operated for Continental Airlines. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has called the situation “a nightmare.”

“Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly, and this new rule will require airlines to respect the rights of their customers,” LaHood said.

While reporting is voluntary, LaHood vowed strong enforcement and said he knows he will be hearing from passengers.

Kate Hanni, who founded the advocacy group , said she is “thrilled” by the new rule.

“Once the door is closed, (passengers) have less rights than prisoners of war,” said Hanni, who began fighting for passenger rights after enduring a nine-hour delay.

Opposing the rule is the Air Transport Association, which represents most U.S. carriers.

Airlines will cancel flights, ATA chief executive James C. May said, to avoid fines for delays during bad weather and busy travel periods, causing a cascade of disruptions.

Denver’s three largest airlines – United, Frontier and Southwest – have plans that call for pilots to return to the gate after 2 1/2 hours on the tarmac, and they already stow enough food and water.

Bryan Bedford, chief executive of Frontier Airlines’ parent company, told employees last week that the rule is “terrible for us and for our customers.”

An Airbus A318 with 120 passengers breaching the limit could be fined more than $3.2 million for one flight, Bedford said, adding, “We simply cannot afford to take the risk of such a penalty.”

Federal data indicate the incidence of passengers stranded on planes for long periods is low.

The 18 airlines reporting to the U.S. Transportation Department totaled 61 flights with three-hour-plus delays in February, or 0.013 percent of the 481,988 flights.

In February, United, Frontier and Southwest each had two flights that exceeded the new time limit.

Jessica Allen of Thornton questioned what passengers get out of the rule. She said she had a long delay on an international flight but spent the hours in the terminal.

Stranded passengers won’t get anything from the fines.

“The benefit to the consumer is not being subject to tarmac delays and being provided other consumer protections,” DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said.

Ann Schrader: 303-954-1967 or

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