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Understanding the New Tarmac Delay Rule

The new tarmac delay rule was written to protect passengers. How good are its odds?

When I hear stories of passengers left stranded on ramps or taxiways, I cringe-then thank my lucky stars that it didn't involve me. Before the new tarmac delay rule went into effect on April 29, our chances of becoming involuntary captives had grown considerably. But now nobody will have to endure the experience of spending a night or a day inside the confines of an airliner. As tight as airline budgets are these days, no airline wants to pay fines of up to $27,500 per passenger for violations.

The straw that finally broke the camel's back last summer was Minneapolis-bound Continental Flight 2816 (on a regional jet operated by ExpressJet), diverted
due to weather into Rochester Minnesota (RST). After two and a half hours of en-route flight time, the aircraft, with 50 passengers and crew aboard, landed at RST, then sat on the tarmac from just past midnight until approximately 6:30 the following morning. Unable to leave the jet, the passengers endured a nightmare stay aboard with little food and water and, worse yet, overflowing toilets.

The captain and the copilot were continuously fed inaccurate data from the Mesaba ground staff at Rochester. They were told that they could not deplane into the terminal because there were no TSA personnel available to rescreen the passengers-but it turned out that if they had remained in a sterile area, they could have gotten off the aircraft and entered the terminal. The pilots were also told that a bus would take the passengers to Minneapolis (MSP), 82 miles
away. But no bus ever arrived, and the passengers were left stranded overnight.

So was ExpressJet ultimately held responsible for this inexcusable situation? Could the crew have used any additional resources to change the circumstances of that horrible night? Is the new tarmac delay rule necessary, and will it be effective? The implementation of the new
legislation makes the answer to all three questions a resounding yes. This new rules quantifies all the variables that made this scenario possible, and it enforces severe penalties for airlines that choose noncompliance over following the letter of the law.

Captain's authority

Experience in the cockpit is a priceless commodity. Certainly, proficient flying skills are essential for safely completing a challenging flight schedule, but headwork and situational awareness skills are equally important when operating on the ground. Many judgment
calls made daily by pilots exceed the usual flying-related decisions every professional pilot is trained to maintain. I don't know the experience level of the pilots in command of the ill-fated ExpressJet flight, but I can guess that they had never been faced with that type of situation before.

Many regional airlines operate under tight budget constraints
and don't have the deep pockets to offer giveaways. It appears that avoidance of additional costs may have been the main driver in the decision-making process. Com-bine a penny-pinching approach with pressure on the captain, and you have a recipe for paralysis and inaction.
By law, captains of commercial aircraft are given strong powers of authority that can be interpreted using a wide range of discretion. In essence, under the rules governed by Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 91.3a, the captain's authority is qualified as such: "The pilot in command [the captain] is directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of the aircraft." This includes responsibility and accountability. In the case of Flight 2816, the captain could have used her legal authority to make better decisions.

In hindsight, it seems clear that the captain could have done more to alleviate the uncomfortable situation. I would surmise that if she had used her command authority and allowed the passengers to deplane, the 47 passengers onboard would have praised her later and strongly defended her against any attempts by the airline to impose disciplinary measures.

The rule

The new tarmac rule goes into effect once the cabin doors are closed and the aircraft is ready for pushback. But unfortunately, it applies only to domestic airlines and not to international carriers. The airline has up to three hours to get you into the air before a fine is possible. Many variables must be considered before an aircraft can return to the gate and not be fined. Keep in mind that if the aircraft returns to the gate inside the three-hour window, the airline may just cancel the flight altogether to avoid the fines.

But there are times when you wouldn't want to return to the gate, such as during a snowstorm. Weather conditions permitting, it is usually much better for passengers if the airplane takes off. If it returns to the gate and the flight is canceled, you will be stuck inside an overcrowded terminal with little hope of a later flight.

Some airlines have reduced turnback time and will return aircraft to the gate after two hours, just to make sure they don't incur any fines. While holding a plane out on a ramp or a taxiway, some airlines hand out snacks and water if it looks like they will experience undue delays. One condition legally permits waits of more than three hours: when the captain determines that it would be unsafe to move the aircraft in the event of terrorism or another unforeseen calamity.

The bottom line on this new rule is that it is good for passengers and for crews. It will increase an airline's operational awareness considerably,
and it will do more to alleviate potential mistakes like the ones that led to an unforgettable evening in Rochester last summer


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