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Airline Passenger Bill of Rights and Unreasonable Delays

The issue of tarmac delays first entered the spotlight in 2007 when JetBlue passengers were stranded for up to 10 hours on the tarmac during a winter storm. Since then there have been several enactments, known as the Passenger Bill of Rights that now give airlines a set of rules they must follow in the event of a tarmac delay and face fines if they do not comply. While the tarmac delay rules have been in effect now for quite awhile, it has not been until the last few months that we have actually seen them enforced. So what exactly are the tarmac delay rules and what impact do they have on the passengers and airlines?

  • The bill states that airlines must return planes to the gate and let passengers off any time a flight is sitting on the tarmac for three hours.
  • Airlines must provide passengers with adequate food and water within the first two hours of any tarmac delay.
  • Adequate toilet facilities must be maintained and made available to passengers during the delay.
  • Airlines must designate one employee to monitor flight delays and cancellations, respond to passenger complaints, and instruct passengers on the complaint filing process.
  • Airlines must post and maintain updated flight delay data on their websites, including information on flights that are frequently delayed, for each domestic flight they operate.

If the airlines do not comply with these rules, they can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger. These fines can rack up quickly considering commercial airliners can carry more than 200 passengers on one flight. Depending on how many passengers the airliner has on board, they could be facing more than $5,500,000 in fines for each violation. The rule now also applies to international travel where tarmac delays cannot be more than four hours without being subject to these fines. These numbers can quickly become astronomical. With rising fuel costs, and the struggles the airlines face every day with our current economic climate, a fine like this could be disastrous to an airline. So, what are the airlines going to do when they come into situations where they find themselves facing delays that could possibly turn into one of these scenarios? They may simply just begin cancelling flights that have even a slightly poor delay forecast. If the airline does end up getting fined, in order to make up for the loss they may find themselves having to raise ticket prices and/or adding other expenses. All of this seems a lot to risk and a lot of disruption to the industry. Now, no one wants to be sitting on the tarmac for 10 hours without food or water. Many of the provisions such as toiletries and informing passengers of frequently delayed flights do seem to be appropriate. However, it does not seem as if these enormous fines would be the only effective alternative to penalizing the airline. Airlines do not want unhappy passengers, and already incur loss due to delay that many times is out of their control. Financially burdening them further only breeds for more problems. Since we have not seen the fines implemented until this past November for the first time, it will now make the airlines become even more fearful. The first fines were made to American Eagle Airline in November; however the violations were made months before.  On May 29, 2011, American Eagle had tarmac delays due to weather of up to 3 hours and 45 minutes on 15 flights arriving in Chicago.  608 total passengers were aboard the flights. The airline was fined a total of $900,000; $650,000 to be paid within 30 days, and up to $250,000 which can be given in refunds, vouchers and frequent flyer mile awards to passengers that were on the flights. While the airline did have a plan in place they were late in implementing it which still resulted in the fine.

Although they may not be cancelling flights in advance now, it is likely that as DOT starts actually implementing these fines, we will begin seeing airlines not want to take a chance and start cancelling flights without hesitation to err on the side of caution. Or as mentioned earlier, the repercussions of financially burdened airlines- ticket prices being raised to make up for loss. While there have been positive results from the delay numbers being down, the public has yet to see the real consequences that will unfold as more fines are actually given-instead of just threatened. 

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