Airline passengers finally getting some real rights

You’ve heard those horrific stories in recent years about airline passengers whose flights sit on airport taxiways or gates aprons for hours because the planes are waiting for the weather to improve or for an arrival gate to open up.

You’ve heard about the problems as the planes just sit there for hours on end in the cold or the heat, as the planes become foul-smelling as toilets fill up and can’t be used anymore.  You’ve heard about claustrophobic,  exhausted and frustrated passengers who get cranky or downright angry over the inhospitable conditions as they sit in the planes waiting endlessly without food, water and other basic necessities.  And you’ve likely heard about some of the lawsuits that have been filed in connection with these difficult incidents.  You may have even experienced such an indignity and inconvenience in the last few years.

Well, finally, the federal government is doing something about it, and it’s about time.

In a story in The New York Times this week, new U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) rules will mean that airlines will face penalties of up to $27,500 per passenger if food and water isn’t offered on board to affected passengers after delays of at least two hours.  Planes will also be prohibited from remaining parked on the ground with passengers on board for more than three hours without allowing them to get off the aircraft.  That’s great news and a great place to start.

Frustrated man waiting in an airplane.

A man waits in his seat inside an airliner. Image credit: ©

The new rules limiting airline “tarmac delays” were unveiled by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood earlier this week and will go into effect next spring.  “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,”  LaHood said in a statement.

The DOT had already reacted to tarmac delay incidents like these in some cases recently, including a combined $175,000 fine against Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines in connection with a nearly six-hour ground delay at an airport in Rochester, Minn.

The New York Times story reported that only about 1,500 flights a year in the U.S. experience these extended delays, which amounts to about one out of every 6,200 flights,  “but that has been enough to affect more than 100,000 passengers a year and to create substantial public resentment,” according to the Times.

That’s putting it mildly.

Yes, you can always sue in such an instance and hope that you can recover damages for inconvenience, travel delays, suffering and hassle, but these kinds of preventable scenarios shouldn’t be occurring in the first place.

Kudos to the DOT for finally taking a stand for airline passenger’s rights.