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New Rule Offers Trapped Travelers An Exit Door

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines jets taxi at Los Angeles International Airport on December 21, 2009.
David McNew
United Airlines and Southwest Airlines jets taxi at Los Angeles International Airport on December 21, 2009.

It's not covered by the Geneva Conventions, but being trapped in an airplane while waiting for takeoff sometimes feels like a crime against humanity.

Starting Thursday, airline passengers stuck on the tarmac have some redress. Under a new federal rule, passengers must have the chance to get off that motionless plane three hours after leaving the gate.

Many passengers have faced the scenario where they're waiting for their flight to take off, and then weather or air traffic intervenes. A quick taxi to the runway becomes an ordeal.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport recently, Syed Hussain was waiting for his bags. He said he was stuck for five hours at Houston's Hobby Airport because of a thunderstorm. He said he and other passengers onboard waited and waited, and they weren't offered any refreshments.

Now passengers like Hussain can complain to Ray LaHood. The transportation secretary has been a big defender of the new rule, which he says stipulates that "the pilot has to go back to the terminal when the three-hour period is up to let the people get off of the plane and do what they want to do."

A Hefty Fine

If the airline misses that deadline, it will face a fine of fine of $27,500 per passenger, LaHood says. And passengers will no longer have to go hungry. They can look forward to snacks and "potable water" after two hours. And the lavatory also must be working.

The airlines declined NPR's request for interviews. The companies said they were in "compliance mode," meaning they have given up trying to fight the rule. Airlines had argued they have no control over the weather, and that the rule would be too costly.

The rule comes at a time when many airlines are struggling financially.

But LaHood says they need to deal with the new requirement: "I have no doubt they will figure out [a] way to schedule planes to account for the fact that there could be delays."

LaHood is responding to a deluge of complaints about the problem. The tipping point came last summer, when a Continental flight spent six hours on the runway in Rochester, Minn., because no one would let passengers into the terminal.

Passenger Reactions

The Transportation Department should garner big points from consumers for taking this step, judging by sentiments at BWI Airport.

"The weather is obviously an uncontrollable force," said Abbey Cole, who had just arrived at BWI from San Diego. "However, I have no sympathy with the airlines due to their mismanagement."

Drew Hevle says it can get steamy sitting on the tarmac for long periods of time. He flew into Baltimore from Houston.

"I think three hours is probably too long to sit there, you know, usually with no air conditioning," Hevle said. "And then they won't give you any service while you're sitting there. They won't open the bar."

Some airlines recently asked for waivers from the rule at certain airports, saying for example that construction at JFK is making it tough to follow a schedule. But LaHood told them to forget it.

"This rule does not apply to international flights," LaHood says. "And most of the flights at Kennedy are international flights."

There is a potential downside for passengers. When in doubt, airlines may decide to cancel flights to pre-empt possible fines. So, when bad weather strikes, passengers will be just as stuck, but they will be able to stretch their legs.