DOT rule on tarmac delays needs revision

The ink is hardly dry on the Department of Transportation’s three-hour tarmac rule and travel professionals, while still in favor of the rule, are calling for its effective date this spring to be postponed by as much as eight months, citing the moves necessary at New York City airports and “ever-shifting” security requirements.

The Business Travel Coalition said while it pains it to find fault with the new rule, it said that a four-month implementation period will wreak havoc on the system. “I feel duty-bound to speak up lest the admirable objectives of the rule be placed at severe risk of failure by the impossibility of attaining airline compliance within the 4-month period, given the multitude of other stakeholders whose active cooperation is essential,” said BTC Chair Kevin Mitchell. “Without more time for implementation-planning, chaos will likely reign this summer for business travelers, meeting attendees and leisure travelers alike.”

Mitchell would like to see a year-long implementation period. The rule, issued by the Department of Transportation on 21-Dec-2009, requires airlines to deplane passengers after three hours or face a USD27,500 maximum fine per passenger. He also indicated some of its major problems must be worked out because the new rule could prompt Congressional leaders to pass their long-stalled passenger rights legislation which could be even more restrictive.

“At the New York City-area airports, for example, the three-hour rule will be unworkable without serious reengineering efforts including reducing schedules, deploying larger aircraft, moving demand to non-peak periods, shifting flights to secondary airports and radically adjusting policies, processes and practices,” said Mitchell. “Given that New York airports are directly or indirectly responsible for 75% of delays across the entire US system, fundamental changes in New York will necessarily impact airlines’ schedules throughout U.S. domestic and international systems. Essentially, airlines will have to take a total systems-view as they reconfigure their approach to the business.”

Mitchell called on stakeholders to convene to agree on how this “radical makeover” should progress. “Airlines cannot unilaterally implement this 3-hour rule,” he said. “There must be collaboration, buy-in and decisions made by airport authorities, TSA, FAA, Customs, unions and local law enforcement. This portion of the process alone will take considerable time to produce decisions sufficient for airlines to complete their reengineering work.” At the very least, such deliberations require nine months, he concluded.

“No matter the implementation timeframe, a drawdown in schedules at New York City-area airports is exceedingly difficult for airlines to accomplish unilaterally due to competitive reasons,” he pointed out. “The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ) should take a leadership role, with support from the governors of New Jersey and New York as well as the mayor of New York City. PANYNJ needs to make the case for DOT-administered and Department of Justice-monitored meetings among airlines to adjust schedules. The alternative is chaos and further erosion of business travel and tourism.”

Other initiatives included having “a humbled airline industry reach out to consumer and travel groups, Members of Congress and the Administration and pursue a sincere, long-lasting and productive conversation about passenger rights and customer service.” 

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