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December 22, 2009 - New Rule to Let Fliers Off After 3 Hours

December 22, 2009 - New Rule to Let Fliers Off After 3 Hours

Passenger-rights advocates called it "a Christmas miracle" Monday when the Transportation Department announced a new rule to let passengers off stranded planes after three hours.

The new rule, which takes effect in late April and applies only to domestic flights, prohibits airlines from letting an aircraft remain on an airport tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers.

Exceptions are allowed for safety or security, or when air traffic controllers notify a pilot that returning to a terminal would disrupt operations.

The rule came as a pleasant surprise to consumer advocates who had grown frustrated that a bill in Congress to help stuck passengers was stalled.

"We have achieved our near-term goals of a mandatory three-hour rule, and it's akin to a Christmas miracle," says Kate Hanni of

The rule is a setback for airlines, however. They have strongly opposed a government-ordered limit on how long they could keep passengers on planes.

The Air Transport Association, which represents major U.S. airlines, says the new rule will be detrimental to passengers.

"We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences -- more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience," says James May, the association's CEO. "The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible."

Last month, the Transportation Department for the first time fined airlines for leaving passengers stuck on a tarmac.

Continental Airlines and its regional airline partner, ExpressJet, were fined $100,000 for keeping passengers on a plane overnight at the Rochester, Minn., airport in August.

Mesaba Airlines, which handled ground operations, was fined $75,000.

The rule will apply to all U.S. passenger airlines operating flights with more than 30 seats, department spokeswoman Olivia Alair says.

The new rule also requires U.S. airlines to adopt policies for tarmac delays on international flights. An airline with a policy allowing passengers off a plane after a certain number of hours during a delay might be subject to a fine if it doesn't adhere to its policy, Alair says. Other provisions:

*Require airlines to provide food and water for passengers delayed for two hours, as well as operating lavatories and necessary medical attention.

*Prohibit airlines from scheduling chronically delayed flights.

*Require airlines to designate an employee to monitor the effects of flight delays and cancellations, give consumers information on where to file complaints and to respond "in a timely and substantive fashion" to complaints.

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