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 departments 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.