JetBlue flight sits on tarmac for seven hours. Will anyone be fined?

Airlines can be fined $27,500 per passenger for flights that sit on the tarmac for more than three hours. But critics say enforcement has been too soft. The JetBlue delay could be a test.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted October 31, 2011 at 5:24 pm EDT

The tale of a JetBlue flight stranded on a runway outside Hartford, Conn., for more than seven hours Saturday could be a fresh test of new federal rules that fine airlines for tarmac delays of longer than three hours.

JetBlue Flight 504 was one of several flights that reportedly sat on runways for hours after they were diverted from landing at New York-area airports because of a combination of events, including the Northeast snowstorm and equipment failures. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating.

Now, the airline industry and passenger’s rights groups will be watching to see how the Department of Transportation applies its new rules about tarmac delays. “They’ll be watching what the DOT decides to do, who is at fault, is someone is fined, and how much,” says Andrew Compart, senior editor for Aviation Week.

Tarmac delays are the bane of the airline industry, creating hardships for passengers and bad publicity for the airlines. A high-profile incident in February 2007, involving a JetBlue plane that sat on the tarmac for 11 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport, led to new federal rules in April 2010. Among other things, the rules penalize airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for domestic-bound planes that sit on the tarmac longer than three hours without allowing the passengers to exit.

There are signs that the rules are having an impact. Tarmac delays of more than 3 hours declined 97 percent in the first 12 months of the rule, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

But critics say that the rules are not enforced strictly enough, and that airports – which are often a primary cause of the delays – are not held accountable.

“The DOT has never authorized the maximum fines” since the new rules, says Kate Hanni, a spokesperson with Flights Rights, a consumer advocacy group in Napa, Calif. “Nothing ever happens.”

Even if the airlines were forced to pay hefty fines, the money is not directed the passengers.

“There’s nothing in the regulation that obligates” the airlines to compensate passengers for their troubles, says Mr. Compart. Instead, consumers are forced to rely on the policies of each airline, which may include reimbursement for hotels, food, and transportation.

Passengers are the ones who pay the most for flight delays, according to a study published in October 2010 by the University of California at Berkeley and commissioned by the FAA. For example, the total cost of flight delays reached $32.9 billion in 2007. Passengers paid about half that, or $16.7 billion, due to lost time and expenses such as food and accommodations, while airlines were paid $8.3 billion, resulting from crew, fuel, and maintenance costs.

The airlines argue that increased federal regulation will cause suffering for both passengers and the industry, as flight cancellations will increase.

Indeed, in the five months after the new rules came into effect, airlines were three times more likely to cancel flights that were on the tarmac for two to three hours than they were during the same five-month period the year before, according to a Government Accountability Office report last month.

Passenger advocate Ms. Hanni says the regulation needs to extend to airports, which are often just as responsible as airlines. For instance, she said conditions were clear enough at Hartford’s Bradley International Airport to have allowed passengers to exit the plane via portable stairs.

“The diabolical part of all this is all the airlines have to do is say, ‘It’s the airport’s fault,’ and no fines are imposed against anybody,” she says. “Airports are not regulated to have a [tarmac delay contingency plan]. If they did, the situation on Saturday would not have happened.”

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