Yesterday, I had my first encounter with the Passenger Bill of Rights, otherwise known as the Tarmac Rule. It was in no way a positive experience. Bottom line? The law of unintended consequences strikes again.
First, let me give you my interpretation of the law. The general premise of the new law is to limit the amount of time airlines are legally allowed to sit off-gate, either waiting in line to takeoff or waiting to park, with passengers aboard. The clock on this new law either begins when the aircraft lands, or at the time that the entry door is closed for the purpose of flight. Many airlines, mine included, now make an announcement to the passengers before the entry door is closed, informing them of their last opportunity to deplane. As a result of this announcement, the fact that you may have been in your seat for a significant time before the door was closed is irrelevant.
The law requires an airline operating a domestic flight to offer food and water to passengers at or before 2 hours past the time that the entry door was closed, and requires the airline to allow passengers the opportunity to exit the aircraft at or before 3 hours. If adequate food and water is not available, the aircraft must be back to the gate within 2 hours. At $27,500 per passenger, the fine for violating the law could be astronomical. The flight I'll describe here left the gate with 124 passengers on-board, and would have incurred a fine of $3,410,000 for exceeding the limits of the law by even one minute.
The flight was scheduled from the Dallas, Ft. Worth International Airport to a city in the northeast. The weather at both airports was actually pretty good, with partly cloudy skies and light winds...no big deal right? The problem was an area of weather east of the airport that spawned severe thunderstorms and several reported tornadoes. The storms were all at least 15 miles east of the airport and moving away, but they were disrupting all the departure routes to the east. Our flight was departing out one of the north departure corridors, but many of the east-bound flights were re-cleared to the north, so our departure would be affected.
With the weather to the east, we convinced our dispatcher to add 2000 pounds of extra fuel to account for increased taxi times. On this aircraft, 2000 pounds would last about 2 hours on the ground, but only about 20 minutes in the air. As it turned out, the Tarmac Rule, not our fuel, would dictate the outcome of the day.
I won't bore you with all the details, but we were cleared to one runway, then another, and then back to the original. I'm sure the ground controllers at DFW were doing their very best, but every time they changed our runway, our delay got longer and our position in line for takeoff got worse. As it became obvious that we would not be able to takeoff within the limits of the law, we began discussions with our flight's dispatcher to coordinate our return to the gate.
Just getting back to the gate took over 30 minutes due to all the taxiway congestion. We finally arrived back at our starting point and parked with two minutes to spare. By this time, the Captain and I had been on duty for 13 hours and would be illegal to continue. This is where the "Law of Unintended Consequences" comes into play. Since there were no reserve crews available, the flight was cancelled. All 124 people aboard this flight were put in hotels for the night and re-booked on flights the next day that were already full.
I believe that if we had remained in line for takeoff, that we would have exceeded the limits of the law by no more than 10 minutes. But due to the inflexible nature of the law, we were required to return to the gate. 124 passengers inconvenienced.
Are the outcomes of this flight and hundreds like it acceptable casualties in the effort to protect passengers from excessive ground delays? I don’t think so, and I know 124 people who would agree.