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How Long is Too Long on the Tarmac? You Tell Us.

November 24, 2009 | Posted in: Airline News,Ask Rick,Delays,DOT,Passengers

By now you’ve heard about the $175,000 in fines imposed after a Continental flight (operated by ExpressJet) was diverted to an airport in Rochester, Minn. – where a Mesaba Airlines employee refused to allow the passengers to deplane.

But here’s the specific reason for the fines: the passengers were stuck on that aircraft “for an unreasonable period of time.”

According to the Dept. of Transportation, the “unreasonable amount of time” was precisely 5-hours and 45-minutes (the passengers claim it was much longer).

This begs the question: what is a reasonable amount of time? Two, three, four hours?

Keep reading — I’ll show you how many planes have been stuck on the tarmac for hours during the last few months. I think you’ll be surprised…

We might know the answer to “what’s a reasonable time” if we had Passenger Bill of Rights, which many believe will nail down a time frame for “trapped on the tarmac” limits. However, Kate Hanni of FlyersRights.org says the bill probably won’t reach the floor of the Senate until at least mid-January, and that may be an optimistic timeline.

Besides, some airlines already have their own self-imposed “time on the tarmac” limits – so that should help, right? Well…not really.

The following statistics show how many planes per month were stuck on the tarmac – for four hours or more. The numbers are from the government’s Bureau of Transporation Statistics:

  • Sept. 2009 – 1 flight
  • Aug. 2009 – 6 flights
  • July 2009 – 29 flights
  • June 2009 – 42 flights
  • May 2009 – 8 flights
  • April 2009 – 5 flights

And this despite the fact that numerous airlines have been reported as having their own self-imposed limits, including:

But, as the Wall St. Journal’s Scott McCartney pointed out last August, airline “time limits” can be flexible.

“Just as I was leaving on vacation, news broke of a Continental Express flight that sat on the tarmac in Rochester, Minn., from shortly after midnight until 6 a.m., and as I returned came word of passengers on a Sun Country flight that sat six hours waiting to take off from New York’s Kennedy Airport.” - Scott McCartney, WSJ, 8-24-09

Still, as the airline industry group, the Air Transport Association points out, these events are still rare, which is true – and they are concerned that a “hard and fast rule” on the amount of time a plane can wait on the tarmac wind up being incredibly inconvenient for passenger. For example, if a plane is just about ready to go, but a set time limit requires it to go back to the gate, think of the continued delays.

However, if it’s your plane that’s involved in a “trapped on the tarmac” incident, you know full well how awful it is. And so does the Dept. of Transportation, which is why they levied record-breaking fines of $175K.

And maybe, just maybe it will mean a boost to the efforts to get a passenger bill of rights passed sometime soon.

Say, are you curious about those massive fines, and whether they’ll be paid or not? I was, so I asked about them – and, according to a DOT spokesman, the fines “have been agreed to” and will be paid, and the money will go directly to the U.S. Treasury (it is not earmarked for any particular use).

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