It won't help out during the holiday rush, but the federal government on Monday ordered airlines by spring to spare passengers an endless wait in grounded planes sitting on the runway.
The order by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood requires ailrines to let passengers off the plane after three hours stuck on the ground — a passenger protection long sought by travel consumer advocates.
Under the new rule, effective in 120 days, airlines flying domestically in the United States must provide passengers with food and water within two hours of a plane being delayed on a tarmac and maintain working bathrooms.
An airline must also provide medical attention when necessary.
The development drew cheers from beleaguered air travelers who resurrected stories of long waits, surly flight crews and stir-crazy passengers awaiting updates from the cockpit.
Californian Tim Hanni, a 57-year-old 1970 Killian High School graduate, recounted his 9-hour, 17-minute ordeal grounded aboard an American Airlines plane in San Francisco in 2006. The episode turned his Napa Valley wife into a passenger's rights activist, he said Monday in a telephone interview.
After three hours in a grounded aircraft, "it gets stinky,'' said Hanni, who was trying to travel to Mobile, Ala., with his family of four in the December 2006 delay that had passengers tearing up T-shirts to serve as a baby's diaper. One passenger was also evacuated from the grounded aircraft in diabetic shock, he said.
Until the new regulation goes into effect, said Hanni, "An airline passenger on a tarmac has less rights than a prisoner of war under The Geneva Conventions.''
At least POWs are entitled to "fair treatment for food, for water, for facilities,'' he said. "There nothing required by the airlines to provide for airline passengers. Nothing.''
Long a source of travelers complaints, lengthy delays on the ground became a hot-button topic in 1999 when Northwest Airlines stranded passengers on a Detroit runway for up to eight hours.
Subsequent strandings spurred consumer advocates to push for a ``passenger bill of rights'' in Congress. Voluntary measures by the airlines stymied that effort.
But the issue reemerged this year after 47 Continental Express passengers were left sitting on a plane overnight in Rochester, Minn. From January to June this year, 613 planes were delayed on tarmacs for more than three hours, their passengers kept on board, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Last month, the government fined Continental Airlines and two other airlines for the $175,000 Rochester episode.
Under the new rule, a pilot must return an aircraft to the terminal and let passengers off unless there's a valid safety or security reason not to do it -- or if air traffic control advises the plane's pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
Airlines that violate the three-hour limit would be $27,500 -- per passenger.