Airlines prepare for stranding rule

After signaling what will happen to passengers as a result of the three-hour tarmac rule with the cancellations of thousands of flights during the February snow storms, US Airways said pilots would return to the gate after 2.5 hours, while Continental told pilots to leave the take off queue after two hours rather than incur USD27,500 in fines for each passenger on each flight.

In a letter to employees, US Airways is imposing the new policy immediately to ensure the airline is ready before the 29-Apr-2010 implementation date for the new rule. Part of the new policy includes dispensing refreshments after 90 minutes and announcements every 15 minutes after that. The cancellations will likely have a cascading effect, prompting additional cancellations as crews time out of their flight and duty day. Continental said that pilots should turn back to either a gate or a remote location where passengers can safely disembark if they expect they will not be able to take off before the three-hour mark.

Business Travel Coalition Chair, Kevin Mitchell, has been saying since the rule was rolled out just before Christmas that the short trigger of only four months for the airlines to prepare was a mistake, although he otherwise lauded the Department of Transportation action. Other passenger advocates suggest that scheduling has more to do with delays than weather which, said the industry, is responsible for the vast majority of delays.

The Department is now considering petitions from airlines JetBlue, Delta, American and Continental about exemptions from the rule during the closure of JFK International Airport's bay runway. The runway is closed through June, but it won’t be until November before the runway is fully operational. Given the history of chronic delays in New York, Continental also asked for exemptions for LaGuardia and Newark, while US Airways included Philadelphia, which is often hamstrung when New York delays are severe.

The airline industry is bracing for yet more cancellations, even if departure is imminent. February’s storms cost US airlines approximately USD170 million in lost revenue, but calculations have not been made for additional costs associated with the storms and will not likely come until later this month when the 1Q2010 earnings calls are made.

Continental said on Monday it has been planning for the change and has its own new rule in place: At the two-hour mark, if a pilot anticipates that the flight will not be able to take-off before the three-hour mark, the pilot will enact a contingency plan.

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