DOT rulemaking — here’s our take on expanded tarmac delay rules

by Charlie Leocha on July 30, 2010


Back on December 30, 2009 the Department of Transportation published a rule, “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” that encompassed what we now know as the three-hour tarmac delay rule. The new DOT rulemaking strengthens that original rule in four ways.

• Extends the rule to foreign carriers and smaller aircraft
• Increases the number of airports covered by the rule
• Requires a coordinate approach to tarmac delays by airlines between various hubs as well as Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
• Requires airlines to communicate with passengers, explaining any tarmac-delays at least once every 30 minutes.
• The DOT proposal also explores the maintenance of tarmac-delay data.

The Consumer Travel Alliance strongly supports these rulemaking proposals. These additional regulations will make these tarmac rules apply across the entire spectrum of our air transportation network.

This is a close look at these tarmac delay issues. Another look at the same issue has already been published by my colleague and the Consumer Travel Alliance ombudsman, Christopher Elliott. Here is his post about collection of tarmac-delay data.

Already, changes are being made by air traffic controllers, ground control workers and by airports to find ways to minimize the impact of overcrowded flight schedules and weather issues. Continued tarmac-delay issues have highlighted the need for coordination between airports, TSA and CBP to set up rules for security and immigration during unexpected delays at diversion airports.

Airlines are sure to begin contributing positively as these rules require chances in old operational patterns. Their own communication processes need to be improved in order to provide passengers accurate information during extended delays. Sometimes, many of the airline personnel are a clueless as passengers when it comes to reasons for extended tarmac delays.

Though airlines have recently been vocal in the media claiming the need to cancel flights because of these tarmac-delay rules, they have only been dealing with the new system for approximately one month.

Originally, the airline response to tarmac-delay problems was that this issue only affected a tiny percentage of their flights and that no government intervention was thus warranted.

Today, this tarmac-delay issue has been found to have many repercussions ranging from airline scheduling to gate management to diversion airports to TSA and CBP rules and regulations. Bringing all airports and airlines serving the American public under the aegis of a unified tarmac-delay rule would be in the interest of the American flying public.

This extension of the original Dec. 2009 regulations would also eliminate much confusion and questions regarding the application of the original rules.

Finally, the collection of tarmac-delay data is a technical issue where the exact methods of amassing this data will probably a source of continuing debate. We agree with the DOT that current data collection processes do not provide a complete picture of tarmac delays.

According to the proposed rulemaking:

While a single incident of tarmac delay may be attributed to one or more causes, such as air traffic congestion, weather related delays, mechanical problems, and/or flight dispatching logistic failures, we believe that an initial and essential step toward finding solutions for the tarmac delay problem, whether by government regulations and/or through voluntary actions by the airlines, and monitoring the effect on consumers of lengthy tarmac delays, is to obtain more complete data on these incidents.

Just how this data is technically collected is not a part of our issues, however, the data should be brought together and used to improve the air traffic system in the U.S. As the major players in the tarmac-delay discussions have found, these problems are not single-issue, but complex with interaction between FAA’s systems, air traffic controllers, technology issues, airport gate management and airline procedures and processes.

The data collected about tarmac delays will help streamline and make more efficient our entire air transportation infrastructure.

The Consumer Travel Alliance urges all consumers who have the occasion to use airlines as a significant part of their transportation to register their thoughts on this issue with the DOT through a special website that has been established to collect public comments on the proposed rules — www.regulationroom.org.

The website will ask for a registration and then explains much of the overall rulemaking in a step-by-step manner. Consumers can make comments on specific areas of the proposed rulemaking.

We have just learned that the comment period on the rulemaking will be extended until September 23, 2010.

Please register your opinions about the extension of tarmac-delay rules across the entire transportation infrastructure and the enhanced collection of tarmac-delay data that will allow for the improvement of that same same air traffic system.

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  • John Baker

    My only concern with this regulation is that it puts the onus for compliance on the airline even when they might not be responsible for the delay or the inability to deplane passengers.

    The perfect example was the recent VA flight 001 that ATC diverted to Bradley International due to weather in the NYC area (Ned’s entire story here: http://www.consumertraveler.com/columns/should-the-tarmac-delay-rule-be-extended-to-international-flights/).

    The short version of this sad story is that by the time the flight landed at Bradley it was basically out of food and water, for some reason the plane couldn’t be refueled, the air conditioning didn’t work on the ground, VA does have any operations at Bradley so the flight did have any ground support, and CBP doesn’t operate the Customs check point at night.

    All of this combined to a lengthy tarmac delay for those on the flight (unfortunately after a lengthy delay in London reportedly due to some issues with the heating and cooling issues).

    This is the one case where I can’t find that the airline did anything wrong and the new regulation would penalize the airline.

    From everything I’ve read, ATC not the airline chose the divert airport but the airline would now be held responsible for ATC choosing to divert a plane to an airport without an operating CBP checkpoint or ground staff for the airline. The airline had no reasonable means to resupply the aircraft and couldn’t legally deplane because the CBP checkpoint was manned.

    The way I read the new regulation, an airline would have to have contingency plans to use any divert airport. In the Northeast a lot of small airports have CBP facilities due to flights from Canada that means contingency planning for any airport large enough to handle your aircraft. This is further compounded by the requirement that the CBP checkpoint be manned to deplane passengers. An airline can have on the contingency plans in place but if the government fails to follow its portion, the airline not the government gets punished and that just doesn’t seem fair.

    I’m all for holding airlines accountable for circumstances that they can control (mainly the decision on when to board the aircraft and taxi away from the gate). I don’t think it’s right to hold the airlines accountable for decisions made by government entities. This is further compounded by the DOT not being able to establish rules that mandate or govern actions by either the TSA or CBP since, as part of DHS, they fall outside the DOT area of responsibility.

  • Joel Wechsler

    It seems to me that there is some room for dialogue between the pilot and ATC during which questions as to availability of CBP personnel, ground suppoprt etc. could be asked. My guess is that VA flight crew are probably unfamiliar with BDL and therefore had no idea what they were getting into.

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