The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has proposed changes to its regulation governing extended tarmac delays for departing aircraft, with the intention of “reducing the number of tarmac delays that are subject to enforcement ... while still maintaining important consumer protections.”

The proposed changes, outlined in a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), would not apply to arriving aircraft but would affect foreign carriers at US airports.

Since 2016, FAA has defined an extended tarmac delay as lasting more than 3 hr. for domestic flights and 4 hr. for international flights. The NPRM formalizes the department’s existing approach to enforcement, with the goal of providing carriers “some relief in situations when they may be unable to reduce the length of a tarmac delay for circumstances beyond their control,” DOT said.

Under the proposed changes, the tarmac delay clock will stop as soon as carriers begin to return the aircraft “to a suitable disembarkation point” with the purpose of deplaning passengers, whereas existing rules only stop the clock once carriers have reached that point.

For aircraft located on parts of airport property that are not under the carrier’s control, FAA will stop the clock as soon as a request is made to the FAA control tower or other relevant authority to return to a disembarkation point, rather than from the time permission is granted. DOT said this will “ensure that carriers are not held responsible for delays attributed to third parties and beyond the carriers’ control.” Aircraft in areas under the carrier’s control will be considered delayed until the pilot physically begins maneuvering the aircraft back to the gate. 

Under existing rules, departure delays are counted beginning from the time the main aircraft door is closed, which generally means passengers on board can no longer deplane. The updated policy would reset the tarmac delay clock if a carrier can demonstrate passengers did have the opportunity to deplane, even while the aircraft doors are closed, “allowing carriers some flexibility in determining when a tarmac delay begins.”

“We commend the Department of Transportation for proposing an improvement to its tarmac delay rule as required by the statutory requirement in the 2016 FAA Extension Act,” Airlines for America (A4A) communications director Katherine Estep said in a statement.

While the proposed changes were met with approval from the airline industry, consumer groups have expressed concern they may undermine enforcement of extended tarmac delays by providing carriers with too much flexibility to avoid penalties for lengthy delays.

“The proposed changes appear to be written for the airline industry and are another example of the undue influence that carriers have over DOT policy,” Travel Fairness Now executive director Kurt Ebenhoch said. “Consumers have been patiently waiting for DOT and FAA action on a long list of overdue changes that affect tens of millions of travelers and occur far more frequently than the relatively rare occurrences this rulemaking addresses.”

Ben Goldstein, Ben.Goldstein@aviationweek.com