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Feds offer escape hatch to trapped air travelers

WASHINGTON – It’s a common air travel nightmare: A flight is delayed for weather or some other reason, marooning a planeload of passengers on an airport taxiway.

“Everyone is hot, uncomfortable and cramped,” said Andy McCormick, of Nashville, who was traveling from Reagan National Airport on Monday and recalled a long tarmac wait on a regional jet. “I remember they couldn’t get the air conditioning going well. They weren’t running beverage service. Everyone was thirsty, hungry and irate.”

On Monday, the federal government promised to change all that.

U.S. Department of Transportation regulators ordered airlines to stop the practice of holding passengers for hours on grounded airplanes. Under the new rules, airlines will have to get travelers in the air within three hours or let them off the plane. Airlines could face fines of as much as $27,500 per passenger for violations.

The new rules also say that airlines must provide adequate food and potable water for passengers within two hours of an aircraft being delayed on the tarmac. Additionally, airlines must maintain “operable lavatories” and provide passengers on delayed aircraft with necessary medical attention. The rules go into effect in about three months, officials said.

In a statement Monday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the rules would “require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly.”

According to Transportation Department data, from January to June 2009, there were 612 planes delayed on tarmacs for more than three hours. In recent years, lawmakers and passengers’ rights advocates have demanded federal action to combat such delays. Anger over passenger treatment during the delays led to federal “Airline Passengers Bill of Rights” legislation that is moving through Congress.

The Air Transport Association, the trade group of major airlines, complained Monday that the three-hour limit would lead to “unintended consequences” – meaning that if airlines were forced to take passengers back to the terminal, the result would be more canceled flights.

David Castelveter, a spokesman for the association, declined to say whether the industry would mount a legal challenge to the federal rules. Castelveter said the association is thoroughly reviewing the 81-page document. “We will comply with the rule, but we cannot rule out our legal options,” he said.

Last month, federal transportation regulators fined three airlines $175,000 for their roles in a tarmac delay of almost six hours in Rochester, Minn., in August. At the time, LaHood said he hoped that the fines would send a signal to the industry to respect the rights of air travelers.

In the Rochester incident, a Continental Airlines commuter jet bound for Minneapolis/St. Paul was diverted because of bad weather in Minneapolis. The aircraft reached Rochester about 12:30 a.m. But the passengers were forced to stay on the aircraft until 6:15 a.m. According to an Associated Press report, passengers complained that the plane stank because of its overwhelmed toilet.

The new rules apply to U.S. airlines and only to domestic flights. They allow exceptions for safety, security and other reasons linked to specific instructions from air traffic control officials.

The regulations also seek to crack down on airlines for chronically delayed flights. It orders airlines to designate employees to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, provide information to consumers about filing complaints and respond in “a timely and substantive fashion” to consumer complaints.