New 3-hour rule won't apply to international flights

Atlanta airport
Delta Air Lines planes line up at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Barry Williams/Getty Images

The new FAA time limits would not necessarily have helped hundreds of passengers stranded in the Twin Cities last week. Their Delta Airlines flight bound for Japan was delayed for repairs, and Delta kept passengers onboard the plane for more than 5 hours.

Even when the new three-hour time limit takes effect, it won't apply in the same way to international flights.

Jessua Mathieu's wife, Megumi, was among the passengers booked on the flight to Tokyo. The passengers waited hour after hour as mechanics tried to fix some unexplained problem with the aircraft.

The passengers kept thinking they were going to leave soon. But after few hours, Methieu says people were getting frustrated and antsy.

People were asking to leave since they were still at the gate, they were real curious about why they couldn't leave," Mathieu said.

Mathieu says his wife told him passengers were worried just how long they could be stuck on the plane.

"It was a crazy, crazy ordeal," he said. "Those poor people they were all discussing on the flight about the possibility of staying there overnight."

He argues airlines should be prohibited from keeping passengers on planes that long during a flight delay.

"To be kept on the plane for five-and-a-half hours with only water and no real idea as to when they would be let off it seems like it should be illegal," Mathieu said.

But when the new three-hour limit goes into effect in April, the rule won't apply to international flights.

It will be up to carriers to set their own limits for how long international passengers may be kept on a plane during a delay. Conceivably, it could be five hours, eight hours, or longer. The airlines get to decide.

A spokesman for the federal Department of Transportation said that airlines will have to publicize the time limits.

He indicated an airline could be fined if it exceeded the time limit it sets for itself. The time limits will be set in coming months.

Delta Air Lines, which owns Northwest, says the airline thought the Tokyo flight's mechanical problems would be solved quickly and the flight would be on its way, but the problem turned out to be harder to fix. The flight was canceled after about a five-and-half-hour delay.

Delta spokesman Kent Landers said there is no rule in place today that required Delta to let passengers off the plane, but he insisted passengers would have been let off if they asked.

"Once there is a delay onboard, at anytime, and we are at the gate, a customer certainly can request to get off the plane," Landers said. "However, there would then be the chance they would not be able to get to their destination based on security screening requirements and other factors that especially play into international departures." Landers said Delta apologizes for the delay and flight cancellation. He said passengers were booked on another flight the next day and issued discount coupons good toward future flights.

But Mathieu says his wife and the other passengers on board deserve more and that Delta should be punished.

"Fines should be imposed. Real money back to their customers might be an idea, rather than a coupon on their next flight," he said. "Some kind of real compensation, a real 'I'm sorry' would be ideal."

After his wife landed in Japan, Mathieu says she told him passengers had drafted a petition of complaint, though they weren't sure where they would send it.

Twin Cites airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said airlines at the airport generally try to get passengers off planes if an aircraft has been waiting more than two hours at a gate or on a runway.

It was an incident in Minnesota that inspired the limits on how long passengers can be held on domestic flights waiting to take off or unload passengers.

Last month, the department fined Continental Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesaba Airlines $175,000 for their roles in a nearly six-hour tarmac delay in Rochester, Minn. last August.

On Aug. 8, Continental Express Flight 2816 en route to Minneapolis was diverted to Rochester due to thunderstorms.

Forty-seven passengers were kept overnight in a cramped plane amid crying babies and a smelly toilet because Mesaba employees refused to open a gate so that they could enter the closed airport terminal. The case marked the first time the department had fined an airline for actions involving a tarmac delay. Transportation officials made clear the case was a warning to the industry.