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
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.