— It’s simply being called “the three-hour rule.”
Indeed, the Department of Transportation’s new rule that took effect Thursday promises stiff penalties for airlines that strand passengers inside idling airplanes for more than three hours.
But look closer at the 81-page document detailing DOT’s new Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections rule, and you’ll find other regulations that apply more broadly and require carriers to be more truthful about flight delays and take more responsibility when things go wrong.
Here are some highlights of the DOT legislation that might just make a difference on your next trip.
Make, share and stick to plans
Let’s start with that three-hour rule. And the two-hour rule.
With a few security-related exemptions, an airline must allow customers to get off the plane — or risk receiving fines of up to $27,500 per passenger — at the three-hour point of a tarmac delay. After two hours, DOT will require airlines to give passengers “some type of food [i.e. pretzels or granola bars], potable water, working lavatories and, if necessary, medical care.”
These rules apply to major U.S. carriers as well as the small regional carriers you might fly due to code sharing arrangements.
Airlines must also have contingency plans in place, and the plans must be coordinated and shared with airports regularly used by the carriers, as well as with any medium- or large-hub airports likely to receive diverted flights.
Curious about what the contingency plans spell out? DOT requires each airline to post them online, either as part of the contract of carriage or separately on its Web site. During this summer’s thunderstorm season or during a bout of snowstorms next winter, you might want to print out your carrier’s contingency plan and bring it with you.
Ultimately, DOT decided to exempt international flights operated by U.S. carriers from the three-hour rule. Instead, it ruled that as long as the situation is addressed in a posted plan, an airline may set its own tarmac delay time limits.
When shopping for non-domestic flights, international travelers should now compare contingency plans along with fares.
No more ignoring customer complaints
Have a grievance about an airline experience? Who doesn’t?
Some airlines make it difficult for a customer to figure out how to file complaints, while others respond to complaints, if at all, with an automated “thanks for your comment” message.
DOT wants that to change. Airlines aren’t being required to accept complaints by phone, but new rules require carriers to post e-mail, Web and snail-mail addresses on Web sites, e-ticket confirmations, and at ticket counters and boarding gates.
Additionally, airlines must acknowledge a complaint within 30 days and provide “a substantive response” — something that addresses a customer’s specific complaint — within 60 days.
Not sure you sent your complaint to the right department? According to the DOT rules, “airlines will be required to acknowledge and respond to all such complaints even if a passenger does not submit it directly to the carrier’s customer relations department.”
Truth in scheduling
Passengers shopping online for a plane ticket must now be shown detailed and timely information about a flight’s delay and cancellation history — not after a search is completed and when a credit card payment is due.
For flights that are routinely or chronically delayed, DOT will require airlines to highlight them in their schedules so travelers will be alerted to the probability of a delay.
According to the rule, “by providing flight delay data to consumers at an earlier stage, they can choose during the browsing/shopping phase whether or not to abandon consideration of a given flight that is canceled regularly or has a high percentage of delays longer than 30 minutes.”
You can read more details about the provisions of the DOT’s new rules here. Decide for yourself if you think the rules will make a difference or, as some industry experts predict, will just cause more problems.
Scheduled to take effect April 29, DOT has pushed back some requirements for airlines to post flight-delay information until July. Several airlines have unsuccessfully sought exemptions from tarmac-delay rules at the New York area and Philadelphia airports to accommodate a runway closure at JFK.
And don’t think DOT is finished with its rulemaking for airline consumer protections. According to a statement posted on his Fast Lane blog in December, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is determined to protect air travelers even further.
For example, LaHood eventually wants to require each airline to submit its contingency plans to DOT for approval and review. He also would like to see airlines report additional tarmac delay data and disclose more information about baggage fees.
Meantime, travelers shouldn’t expect the vexing issues surrounding modern travels to miraculously disappear once DOT rules take hold.
It may help, but it remains a good idea to arrive at the airport well-rested, well-prepared and with a hefty supply of patience and good humor.