A planeload of travelers was stranded for nearly six hours on the tarmac in Minnesota in 2008.
That same year a U.S. Airways flight from Philadelphia to West Palm Beach, Fla., was delayed on the tarmac for four hours and 21 minutes -- for a flight that was supposed to last two hours and 21 minutes. A 50 minute U.S. Airways flight from Boston to New York was stranded on the tarmac for four hours and 15 minutes.
Responding to passenger outrage, the Department of Transportation issued a rule in 2010 allowing passengers to deplane and return to the gate in the event of a three hour or more delay.
As a result of the DOT regulations, there were only four tarmac delays longer than three hours in the first half of 2012 in the U.S., down from 586 over the same period in 2009.
The airline industry, of course, opposed the new tarmac wait rule when first proposed in 2009, saying they could backfire. They claimed airlines would cancel flights to avoid fines, creating further hardships for travelers. Harder than six hours stuck in an airplane sitting on the runway?
"The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible," said James C. May, president of the Air Transport Assn. of America in December 2009. "Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one."
The airline industry claimed that the free market, left on its own, make unnecessary the tarmac rule and a “Passenger Bill of Rights” adopted in 2011 addressing complaints about lost luggage, changed flights, hidden fees and overbooking. A spokesperson for the Air Transport Association stated that "ATA members are committed to continually improving customer service and continue to believe that market forces, not added government regulation -- are a better approach to improving the customer experience."
Yet, between 2009 and 2012, long tarmac delays were virtually eliminated in the U.S. after government regulators took action. So-called “market forces” left passengers stranded on the runway.