To avoid fines that could total millions of dollars per flight if passengers were left stranded on tarmacs longer than three hours, US Airways said its planes would return to the gate after 21/2 hours, unless takeoff were imminent.
Philadelphia's dominant airline told employees in a newsletter late last week that it implemented the procedure Thursday to "knock all the kinks out" before a new federal Transportation Department rule took effect April 29.
Under the regulation, airlines will be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger kept on taxiways more than three hours. The three-hour limit begins when the cabin door closes at the gate.
US Airways said that now, passengers would be offered a beverage and snack service after 90 minutes and, following that, "announcements every 15 minutes to keep passengers informed."
US Airways expects there to be more flight cancellations as crews returning to the gate "may time out" because they exceed work rules limiting the number of hours they can fly.
Passenger-rights advocates said airlines could avoid many delays if flight schedules at the nation's busiest airports were rejiggered so that planes did not all leave and arrive at "peak" times, usually morning and late day to accommodate business travelers.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Radnor-based Business Travel Coalition, said, "We are very pleased with the rule, but very displeased that the DOT gave airlines only 120 days to be ready. That's not enough time for airlines to reengineer their schedules and operations to accommodate the rule.
"So the consumer," Mitchell said, "is going to be caught in the crosshairs."
The three-hour rule "simply will not work at the New York airports, which directly or indirectly, are responsible for 75 percent of all delays throughout the country," he said.
Airlines say weather - snow, ice, rain, wind, and fog - causes most delays.
While that's true, Mitchell said, at the busiest airports, such as New York, congestion and overscheduling flights "simply dwarfs every other cause" of delays.
Four airlines have asked to be exempt from the new rule at New York area airports. JetBlue, Delta, American, and Continental want exemptions at JFK airport, where a runway is being repaved through June and will not be fully operational until November. Continental asked for exemptions at LaGuardia and Newark, N.J., airports.
US Airways has requested an exemption at Philadelphia International, which the airline said was part of the "same intertwined airspace and shares the same congestion challenges" as New York. In inclement weather, Philadelphia gets "spillover" when flights bound for New York are diverted here.
Continental's CEO Jeff Smisek said last month that airlines would cancel flights rather than incur fines. Passengers will have to rebook and face fewer choices. Available flights will be more crowded because airlines have slashed schedules and seat capacity due to the economy.
The Transportation Department issued the regulation in December after a delay Aug. 8 left 47 passengers stranded overnight on a runway in Rochester, Minn. The Minneapolis-bound flight was diverted because of severe weather. The plane landed at 12:30 a.m., but passengers were left aboard until 6:15 a.m.
Contact staff writer Linda Loyd
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