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The Department of Transportation announced today that it will now order all U.S. airlines to allow passengers to deplane after being stuck on tarmacs for periods lasting more than 3 hours. The bold ruling, a big win for consumers and passenger rights advocates, comes fresh off the department’s precedent-setting fines ($175,000 total) issued last month against Continental, Mesaba Airlines, and ExpressJet for an August delay that left 47 passengers stranded for 6 hours overnight on a runway in Minnesota. During the first half of 2009 alone, 613 planes sat idle on tarmacs for over 3 hours nationwide – such delays (which have appeared to increase along with air traffic) are not merely inconvenient, but often tortuous for those onboard.

So far, the rule only applies to U.S.-based aircraft on domestic routes and there are exceptions that can trump the 3-hour limit (for instance, air traffic controllers may prohibit a return to the terminal if doing so is deemed disruptive of airport operations or overall security). The rule will take effect in April 2010.

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