The Department of Transportation has proposed loosening requirements of the tarmac delay rule. 

Under the existing rule, in place since 2011, carriers face fines if they allow domestic flights to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without giving passengers the option to deplane. For international flights, the time allowance is four hours. 

In 2016, however, Congress instructed the DOT to change the language in the case of departing flights so that carriers won't be considered in violation of the tarmac delay rule if they have begun to taxi the aircraft to a suitable disembarkation point within the time limit. The DOT has been following this instruction under an enforcement policy since then, but now seeks to formally change its regulation. 

The proposed regulatory change, however, is more nuanced, and in some respects goes further than what Congress has directed. Notably, under the existing enforcement policy, the tarmac delay clock starts ticking on departing flights once the aircraft door is closed, even if the aircraft remains at the gate. The DOT is now suggesting a more lenient rule. Under the proposal, if the carrier can show that passengers have the opportunity to deplane even while the door is closed, then the tarmac delay clock won't start.

"This approach allows carriers some flexibility in determining when a tarmac delay begins, while adhering to the standard prescribed by the statute," the department wrote in an Oct. 25 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. 

The DOT has also proposed that departing flights be considered in compliance with the three-hour and four-limits as long as carriers have made a request to the FAA, airport or control tower to return to a disembarkation point within those time frames. Under the existing enforcement policy, compliance is conditioned on when that permission is granted.  

"This revision would ensure that carriers are not held responsible for delays attributed to third parties and beyond the carriers' control," the department wrote. 

Consumer advocate Kurt Ebenhoch of Travel Fairness Now was critical of the proposals.

"The proposed changes appear to be written for the airline industry and are another example of the undue influence that carriers have over DOT policy," he said. 

Trade group Airlines for America said, "We commend the Department of Transportation for proposing an improvement to its tarmac delay rule as required by the statutory requirement in the 2016 FAA Extension Act."

The public can comment on the proposals until Dec. 24. The docket number is DOT-OST-2019-9144. 

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