May 21, 2010

Passenger Bill of Rights

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 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.


  1. The usual in aviation lawmaking-the members of our government do not get the big picture on what some of these ridiculous rules will/can do. I just finished up my first year at a large, aviation college (hint, it is not in a warm climate like DFW!) and after learning an astronomical number of regsthis is another to add to the list to worry about...Just think, if a pilot goes over the limit inadvertently and costs the airline a great deal of money, how much is the airline going to appreciate that pilot...I love flying and aviation, but the number of laws and regulations that do nothing (ie the 1500 hour FO regulation that the "experts" "Know" will increase our safety) is growing and usual, the government takes a case that probably hardly ever occurs (Jetblue) and takes it as the norm...Then makes a law "preventing" it, which makes it worse! (On a sidenote, I am about halfway through my instrument rating-any words of wisdom or experiences that will help?)
    Thanks for blogging- gives me something to read up here during a boring summer semester, and I always enjoy hearing about airline pilot experiences! Any Chance you could post some pics from the flight deck?

  2. I agree with everything you say...most of what we do in an airline cockpit is a reaction to some incident or accident. Our checklists and required call-outs just get longer and more complex as the years pass.

    I learned a few things about the tarmac rule that I didn't know before this experience. First, I have confirmed that as long as the crew notifies ground control at least 30 minutes before they are required to be back at the gate...and ground control is unable to get them back to the gate on time, the fine is on ATC, not the airline. Also, my airline (and I'm guessing the others do something similar) send out automatic ACARS messages to the crews as a reminder that they are approaching tarmac rule limits. We received one at the 1.5 hour mark with a request to contact dispatch, which we had already done. Interestingly in this case, ground control appeared disinterested and/or unwilling to help get us back to the gate until about 10 minutes before we were required to be there. It was like something clicked and they realized what was about to happen. At that point, the tower controller moved several aircraft across the departure runway to get them out of our way and let us taxi all the way down an active runway with multiple jets waiting to takeoff in order to insure our arrival at the gate by the limits of the tarmac rule. We are all learning. This may have been the first time this controller had encountered this situation as well. I don't know...but I think it was a learning situation for us all.

    Thanks for the comment. I wish you luck with your instrument training. My advice is to stick with your training and avoid breaks. If you can afford it, go straight through from one rating to the next. It will save you money in the end. Also, choose aviation as a career only if you love aviation. It has been a bumpy ride for me so far. I'm 11 years into my career with a major US airline and have at least another 8 to 10 years to make Captain. It isn't what it used to be, but I absolutely love my job and can't imagine doing anything else.

  3. Thanks for the quick response! I am going into my sophmore year but a junior by credits,thanks to the AP courses I took in high school. I am staying here this summer because if I do I will able to graduate a year early! I love flying-all I have wanted to do since I was 11- To be honest I would rather be a CRJ FO my whole life making 30,000 than working a desk job and making 100,000! My dad works at a desk and hates it. I also can't imagine doing anything else but becoming an airline pilot. Just out of curiosity, what did you major/minor in? I believe you with the seniority at American-phew, long upgrade time but you do work for a great airline (from what I have heard pilots are treated comparitively well?) What is an example of a typical line for you? Time for me to head to class, then another class, then a flight- its gonna be a long day!

  4. I have an unrelated to aviation BA. I hated school and just wanted a 4 year degree to make the airlines happy. If I had it to do over, I would take college a little more seriously and study something I could actually use if my airline job evaporates.

    I am currently a reserve pilot on the MD-80. For comparison, my seniority would allow me to hold Captain or wide body FO at just about any other airline. At AA, reserve FO is all I can hold unless I commute to NYC or Miami and that's not going to happen. I was forced to commute to STL for almost 4 years and hated the life-style of a commuter. I'll probably blog about that sometime. Commuting stinks. Commuting to reserve is the kiss of death.

    A typical month includes 19 days on reserve. I have a 16 hour "window" of availability each day so I'm not on 24/7. I get most of my assignments one day before the start of a trip and I'm usually gone 3 days. I fly about 75 to 85 hours a month. A typical 3 day trip is worth 15 to 18 hours and I fly just about everywhere AA flies in the continental US, Canada and Mexico. Not a bad gig.

  5. AA has a lot of older guys hanging on-wow. If you were a a national like Airtran you would probably be a Senior Capt. I would definitely be interested to read a post on commuting- I am from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, so once I am done at college (and if anyone is actually hiring!) I am hoping to get hired at Mesaba with an MSP base (which of course is the most desired base-choices are MEM, DTW, or MSP). If I get based out of MEM or DTW, I would probably be communting, because I am planning on living at home for awhile to save money and pay off loans and such. I know a few regional pilots, but they had the good fortune of not commuting, so I have never really heard what it is like. Do you read flying? If you are familiar with it, Les Abend is a columnist and AA pilot- He has never said his age but after reading that column for a few years and gettig a few hints I would guess he is around 52? He recently was given an upgrade to 777 capt-how did he get so far up at a slow upgrading airline like AA? Are you familiar with the converging ILS 35 at MSP by chance- I live under that, so I see you American guys in your MD-80s coming from DFW once in awhile! (That is when I am not stuck up here at college in the middle of nowhere...)

  6. One thing I have learned about the airline industry is that it's all about timing. The upgrade time at AA has been as short as a year in the distant past. Many of the Captains I fly with upgraded in less than 10 years. Currently, upgrades to Captain have 19 to 20 years. It will be longer than that for me if things don't improve. Age 60 has killed retirements for the last couple years...AA currently has 397 pilots over age 60 and 137 under age 40.

  7. 20 years, wow-At least once you get to Captain you will have lots of experience. I guess timing is pretty important-two years ago I heard of guys getting hired out of school with 250 hours into the CRJ-900, but now flight instructors can't really leave here and get a good flying job. I hoping in two years when I am graduating that things will have turned around and that a lot of guys higher up will retire and make some room so everyone can flow upwards, but time will tell, I guess...

  8. On the one hand, yeah, a bit of flexibility in the rules might be a good thing. On the other hand, you're sure that you'll be taking off in 15 minutes... half an hour later, you're sure it'll only be another 10 minutes, and so on, until it's been 5 hours and the flight attendants have deployed the evacuation slides to escape the angry passengers. Which is pretty much the situation that the law was trying to prevent.

  9. The problem with flexibility is how far to take it.
    If you introduce a 10 minute buffer in the law, some will read it as meaning the limit isn't 3 hours but 3 hours and 10 minutes, then start calling for an additional 30 minute buffer on top of that 10 minutes.

    And then of course there's the constant threat of tort lawyers, especially in the US.

    If you're one minute over the printed time, you can be sure you're going to get sued for billions in tort money even if the law says it's "flexible" in some way.
    That would cost the airline a lot more than getting the crate back to a gate and stuffing everyone in a hotel overnight.

    IMO btw the departure airport authorities and traffic control should always be responsible for such things, never the airline, unless it can be proven the delay is directly caused by the airline.
    For example they fail to have the aircraft ready for taxi because the crew was late, or worse (and I've had this happen!) because the airline failed to have an aircraft at the gate in time (that was the first flight of the day, dispatch had forgotten to prepare an aircraft and tow it to the departure gate from the ramp across the airport, to the great surprise of the flight crew, ground crew, as well as passengers).

    Most times however the delay is because of things outside of airline control, like overcrowding in the ATC system, weather delays, etc..

  10. Thanks for your response. I agree with what you are saying. If the law is going to be in place, there really isn't any room for flexibility. The line has been drawn in the will cost the airline a bundle if they cross it. My primary complaint with the law and many other aviation "reforms" is that, IMO, it is just another knee jerk reaction to something that rarely occurs. My checklists and manuals are full of procedures that are a direct result of some one-time incident. I strongly believe that thousands more people will be inconvenienced by the new law than were negatively affected by the situation it addresses. Bottom line, if a flight has to return to the gate, the chances are very high that it will be canceled. The result of the cancellation will be a plane load of people trying to get re-booked on already full flights and spending an extra days and nights(sometimes plural) away from home. Just opinions here..take 'em or leave 'em.

    BTW...I mentioned this in my post, but as long as the pilots notify ground control that they need to get back to the gate with at least 30 minutes notice, the fines are on ATC, not the airline if the parameters of the law are exceeded.