Snow Puts Three-Hour Rule To Test

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A new rule penalizes carriers for leaving passengers stuck in aircraft on the ground for more than three hours, but egregious snow storms Tuesday left 28 flights at JFK stuck on the ground away from the gate -- one for nearly 11 hours. Snowfall in the New York City area reportedly exceeded rates recorded for the last six decades. The rule enacted this April states that airlines can be fined up to $27,500 per passenger when delays keep passengers stuck on an aircraft on the ground for more than three hours, but there are exceptions. Flights that begin or end outside the U.S. are excluded from the rule. Tuesday at JFK, aircraft clogged gates so carriers sent buses out onto the tarmac to retrieve passengers from flights that threatened to break the three-hour rule. Pre-emptive flight cancellations (when airlines cancel flights to avoid the possibility of a fine) likely also played a role and may have added to system-wide delays. While no fines have yet been levied for 12 flights already being investigated for delays this year, the new rule has resulted in a quantifiable impact on reported delays among U.S. carriers. It has also made the rule's exceptions all that more apparent.

For the year, the Transportation Department had been investigating 12 cases prior to the blizzard. Last year, airlines reported well above 500 cases in which they left passengers stuck in the plane on the ground for more than three hours. As mentioned, the new rule does not include any flight that begins or ends outside of the U.S., and Tuesday, that made for some notable exceptions. Turkish Airlines Flight 1 arrived at JFK from Istanbul after 10 hours in the air. Its passengers endured another six hours on the ground before the aircraft could unload. The 11-hour ground wait was endured by a Cathay Pacific Flight that arrived from Hong Kong. U.S. airlines have expressed concern that the rule would lead to defensive flight cancellations and cause ripple effects through their flight schedules in an effort to avoid fines. So far, it appears cancellations may be up slightly over last year's figures.