The DOT’s new 3-hour rule: what you need to know

(Denver Airport – courtesy Gregory Thow)

A new set of DOT rules go into effect today promising a wide variety of protections for airline travelers.  As I outlined in an msnbc.com column, Something for everyone in the DOT rules, these regulations offer quite a bit more than just the assurance that passengers will be let off a plane if a delay stretches into the three-hour range.

Here’s just a bit of what you need to know:

Stuck on an airplane?

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must now let you off  a plane by the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.  After two hours, though, the DOT now requires airlines to offer you some water and a little something – maybe pretzels or a granola bar – to eat.  Even if you’re on one of those small, regional carriers.

Each airline must also now have contingency plans in place and those plans need to be posted on an airline’s website. Airlines have more leeway with these plans for international flights – so comparing plans before you buy tickets could be useful.

Got a beef?

To make sure you can file a complaint, airlines must now post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on their Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates. And no more sending those complaints to the ‘circular file.’ The DOT now requires airlines to answer your complaint within 60 days.

There’s more.  So I urge you read the full column – Something for everyone in the DOT rules – so you know what to expect.

Don’t worry, be happy

And, for those of you worried that the three-hour rule means you’ll be marooned at an airport once you’re let off a delayed plane, airport officials say: “Don’t worry.”

Airport directors I spoke with for a USATODAY.com column – Are airports ready for the three hour rule? – say most every airport, even small ones currently excluded from the new DOT rules, has plans and equipment in place to help airlines comply with the new rules and to accommodate passengers let back into the terminal after a 3-hour delay.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next.