Back on December 30, 2009 the Department of Transportation published a rule, “Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections” that encompassed what we now know as the three-hour tarmac delay rule. The new DOT rulemaking strengthens that original rule in four ways.

• Extends the rule to foreign carriers and smaller aircraft
• Increases the number of airports covered by the rule
• Requires a coordinate approach to tarmac delays by airlines between various hubs as well as Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
• Requires airlines to communicate with passengers, explaining any tarmac-delays at least once every 30 minutes.
• The DOT proposal also explores the maintenance of tarmac-delay data.

The Consumer Travel Alliance strongly supports these rulemaking proposals. These additional regulations will make these tarmac rules apply across the entire spectrum of our air transportation network.

This is a close look at these tarmac delay issues. Another look at the same issue has already been published by my colleague and the Consumer Travel Alliance ombudsman, Christopher Elliott. Here is his post about collection of tarmac-delay data.

Already, changes are being made by air traffic controllers, ground control workers and by airports to find ways to minimize the impact of overcrowded flight schedules and weather issues. Continued tarmac-delay issues have highlighted the need for coordination between airports, TSA and CBP to set up rules for security and immigration during unexpected delays at diversion airports.

Airlines are sure to begin contributing positively as these rules require chances in old operational patterns. Their own communication processes need to be improved in order to provide passengers accurate information during extended delays. Sometimes, many of the airline personnel are a clueless as passengers when it comes to reasons for extended tarmac delays.

Though airlines have recently been vocal in the media claiming the need to cancel flights because of these tarmac-delay rules, they have only been dealing with the new system for approximately one month.

Originally, the airline response to tarmac-delay problems was that this issue only affected a tiny percentage of their flights and that no government intervention was thus warranted.

Today, this tarmac-delay issue has been found to have many repercussions ranging from airline scheduling to gate management to diversion airports to TSA and CBP rules and regulations. Bringing all airports and airlines serving the American public under the aegis of a unified tarmac-delay rule would be in the interest of the American flying public.

This extension of the original Dec. 2009 regulations would also eliminate much confusion and questions regarding the application of the original rules.

Finally, the collection of tarmac-delay data is a technical issue where the exact methods of amassing this data will probably a source of continuing debate. We agree with the DOT that current data collection processes do not provide a complete picture of tarmac delays.

According to the proposed rulemaking:

While a single incident of tarmac delay may be attributed to one or more causes, such as air traffic congestion, weather related delays, mechanical problems, and/or flight dispatching logistic failures, we believe that an initial and essential step toward finding solutions for the tarmac delay problem, whether by government regulations and/or through voluntary actions by the airlines, and monitoring the effect on consumers of lengthy tarmac delays, is to obtain more complete data on these incidents.

Just how this data is technically collected is not a part of our issues, however, the data should be brought together and used to improve the air traffic system in the U.S. As the major players in the tarmac-delay discussions have found, these problems are not single-issue, but complex with interaction between FAA’s systems, air traffic controllers, technology issues, airport gate management and airline procedures and processes.

The data collected about tarmac delays will help streamline and make more efficient our entire air transportation infrastructure.

The Consumer Travel Alliance urges all consumers who have the occasion to use airlines as a significant part of their transportation to register their thoughts on this issue with the DOT through a special website that has been established to collect public comments on the proposed rules —

The website will ask for a registration and then explains much of the overall rulemaking in a step-by-step manner. Consumers can make comments on specific areas of the proposed rulemaking.

We have just learned that the comment period on the rulemaking will be extended until September 23, 2010.

Please register your opinions about the extension of tarmac-delay rules across the entire transportation infrastructure and the enhanced collection of tarmac-delay data that will allow for the improvement of that same same air traffic system.