WASHINGTON - Stinky toilets, crying babies, airless cabins - the Obama administration said yesterday that passengers don't have to take it any more. It ordered airlines to let people get off planes delayed on the ground after three hours.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the three-hour limit and other new regulations are meant to send an unequivocal message to airlines not to hold passengers hostage on stuck planes. Coming on the eve of the busy holiday travel season, the announcement was hailed by consumer advocates as "a Christmas miracle."
The airline industry said it would comply with the regulations - which go into effect in 120 days - but predicted that the result will be more canceled flights, more inconvenience for passengers.
"The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible," said Air Transport Association's president and chief executive officer, James May. "Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one."
LaHood, however, dismissed that concern.
"I don't know what can be more disruptive to people than to be stuck sitting on a plane five, six, seven hours with no explanation," LaHood said at a briefing.
This year through Oct. 31, there were 864 flights with taxi-out times or flight diversions of three hours or more, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Transportation officials, using 2007 and 2008 data, said that there are an average of 1,500 domestic flights a year carrying about 114,000 passengers that are delayed more than three hours.
Last month, the department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour tarmac delay in Rochester, Minn. In August, Continental Express Flight 2816 en route to Minneapolis was diverted to Rochester due to thunderstorms. Forty-seven passengers were kept overnight in a cramped plane because Mesaba employees refused to open a gate so that they could enter the closed airport terminal.
It was the first time that the department had fined an airline for actions involving a ground delay. Transportation officials made clear the case was a warning to the industry.