WASHINGTON – Being stuck for hours on a stuffy, stinky plane at the airport – every passenger’s nightmare – was supposed to be a thing of the past, thanks to the government’s threat of huge fines against the airlines. Well, dream on.
Last weekend’s weather stranding of hundreds of travelers, some for as long as seven hours, on an airport tarmac in Connecticut have underscored the limitations of federal rules designed to protect passengers from such ordeals.
Under Transportation Department rules that went into effect in April 2010, most tarmac delays at U.S. airports are limited to three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. Airlines that violate the limit risk fines as high as $27,500.
Industry officials said the tarmac delays appear to prove the point they’ve been making all along: that they’re often powerless to prevent such incidents.
A snowstorm and equipment problems at Newark’s Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport forced 23 planes to divert to Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., on Saturday. Passengers on at least three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines flight reported being confined for seven hours or more.
The captain of JetBlue Flight 504, which was diverted en route to Newark from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., begged for help to get his plane to a gate.
“We can’t seem to get any help from our own company. I apologize for this, but is there any way you can get a tug and a tow bar out here to us and get us towed somewhere to a gate or something?” the captain can be heard pleading over his radio on audio provided by LiveATC.net.
“I have a paraplegic onboard that needs to come off,” he said later. “I have a diabetic on here that’s got an issue. It’s a list of things. I just gotta get some help.”
Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, expressed frustration with the three-hour tarmac rule.
“The way the rule was written it was targeted at the airline industry as if airlines were the only parties involved,” Lott said. “This should be a shared responsibility between airlines, airports and government agencies like TSA or customs.”