tarmac delays

What’s there for you in DOT’s new tarmac-delay rule?

Yes, the Department of Transportation’s new rule taking effect April 29 promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.

But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly. They require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.

No time to read the entire document? No problem. In an msnbc.com column this week Something for everyone in DOT rules, I outline some of the highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.

Make, share and stick to plans

There’s that three-hour rule. There’s also a two-hour rule.

With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay.

After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”

These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.

Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with the airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.

Those plans also need to appear on airline Web sites.

No more ignoring passenger complaints

Have a beef about an airline experience?  Who doesn’t?

Recognizing that some airlines make it difficult for customers to file complaints, the DOT will now require airlines to post information about how and where to file complaints on e-ticket confirmations and at ticket counters and boarding gates.

And airlines must now acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.

What else is in the rule? And what’s next?

You can read more about the passenger protections the DOT is rolling out in my column  Something for everyone in DOT rules, where you’ll find a link to the 81-page DOT rule itself. Take a look and then you can decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.

And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.

DOT to airlines: “If you strand, you will pay”

I heard the news while stuck on a airplane that had been waiting in the de-icing line for almost two hours: the federal government will soon begin fining airlines if passengers are kept locked inside airplanes for long hours without food, water, or the opportunity to deplane.

Most travelers say “It’s about time.”  The airlines? They’re not so happy.  Today the president of the ATA, the trade organization representing the major U.S. airlines said, “We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences – more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience….”

Over the next few months, there’s sure to be plenty of debate about the consequences – good and bad – of the new ruling. So take a moment now, perhaps while you’re stuck on an airplane at an airport somewhere, to read the details of what Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood calls President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights.