By Joan Lowy, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration took aim at tarmac horror stories, ordering airlines to let passengers stuck in stranded airplanes to disembark after three hours.
With its new regulations, the Transportation Department sent an unequivocal message on the eve of the busy holiday travel season: Don't hold travelers hostage to delayed flights.
Under the new regulations, airlines operating domestic flights will be able only to keep passengers on board for three hours before they must be allowed to disembark a delayed flight. The regulation provides exceptions only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
U.S. carriers operating international flights departing from or arriving in the United States must specify, in advance, their own time limits for deplaning passengers.
Airlines will be required to provide food and water for passengers within two hours of a plane being delayed on a tarmac, and to maintain operable lavatories. They must also provide passengers with medical attention when necessary.
From January to June this year, 613 planes were delayed on tarmacs for more than three hours, their passengers kept on board.
Airlines will also be prohibited from scheduling chronically delayed flights. Carriers who fail to comply could face government enforcement action for using unfair or deceptive trade practices.
The new regulations, which were published Monday in the Federal Register, go into 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 in a statement.
Airlines have strongly opposed a hard time limit on tarmac strandings. They say forcing planes to return to gates so that passengers can get off could cause more problems than it cures. They predict more flights will be canceled, further delaying passengers from reaching their destinations.