- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Airline passengers will have the right to food, water and working toilets when a plane is stuck on the tarmac and can return to the terminal after a three-hour delay under new regulations announced by the Obama administration.

The final rule, published Monday in the Federal Register, applies only to domestic flights, and imposes a fine of $27,500 per passenger for airlines failing to follow the new guidelines that take effect in 120 days.

“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

There are exceptions in the new rule: The airplane can stay on course for takeoff if a diversion interferes with the safety of the flight or would disrupt airport operations.

James C. May, president and CEO of Air Transport Association of America, an industry trade organization, said lengthy tarmac delays were never a benefit for airlines, but that the new rules will not benefit passengers.

“We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences, more cancelled flights and greater passenger inconvenience,” Mr. May said.

“In particular, 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,” Mr. May said.

Kate Hanni, a Napa Valley, Calif., resident whose family was stranded on a runway for nine hours on Dec. 29, 2006, launched FlyersRights.org, a consumer group to lobby for a passengers bill of rights. She said Monday that her ideas are essentially what the Transportation Department has enacted.

“This is precedent setting,” Mrs. Hanni said in an interview with The Washington Times. “It’s a great day for airline passengers,” she declared, noting that the announcement came just days before Christmas.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams it would get announced today,” she said.

However, Mrs. Hanni said, the group will lobby for the fees collected by the government to go to passengers instead.

“It should go to the passengers. It’s their time that has been spent on the tarmac, missing weddings, births, funerals; passengers are the ones who suffer,” Mrs. Hanni said.

The rule was adopted in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and also in response to the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems, the Transportation Department said.

In one of the more recent tarmac delays, the department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines a total of $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour ground delay at Rochester, Minn.

The rules prompted praise on Capitol Hill by lawmakers who have been pushing legislation that would enact a passenger bill of rights.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said such legislation is still needed because a future administration could overturn the rules.

“As good as this rule is, it doesn’t give passengers permanent protection,” Mrs. Boxer said.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican who co-authored such a bill with Mrs. Boxer, said the administration’s action is “a strong step forward towards protecting the rights of the flying public.”

• Audrey Hudson can be reached at ahudson@washingtontimes.com.

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