Bart Jansen, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON-- The nation's airlines want the Transportation Department to temporarily suspend the tarmac-delay rule that carries heavy fines for stranding passengers on planes while flight delays mount because of air-traffic control furloughs.
The landmark rule, which first took effect in April 2010 after a decade of lobbying by passengers who had been stuck on planes, says passengers cannot be stranded on domestic flights on airport tarmacs for more than three hours without being taken back to a terminal to get off.
If they are left stranded, airlines face fines of up to $27,500 per passenger. The rule later was extended to four hours for international flights.
Two major groups -- Airlines for America, which represents the largest airlines, and the Regional Airline Association, which represents smaller carriers that most fliers are on daily -- have asked the department to suspend the rule for 90 days or until the furloughs of controllers end.
Furloughs that began Sunday are scheduled to last through September because of federal spending cuts. And already, thousands of flights have been delayed.
The airlines contend that with thousands of daily flight delays, enforcing the rule will force even more cancellations and complicate airport traffic by urging planes back to gates.
"Flights have already been sold months in advance, planes will be full and delays and flight cancellations will result in turmoil for the traveling public," the airlines said in a 10-page filing from Dave Berg, general counsel for Airlines for America, and Roger Cohen, president of the regional group.
But consumer advocates fear that a temporary suspension would lead to a permanent repeal of the rule.
Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, said the rule stopped airlines from keeping passengers on planes rather than canceling flights and allowing travelers to make other plans.
"I think it's a back-door way to try and get repeal," Hudson said. "It would be a total step backward and it would hurt the transportation system and it would alienate passengers more than ever."
The department is collecting public comment on the proposal until 5 p.m. Friday.
Few fines have been levied since the rule took effect. But lengthy tarmac delays have become increasingly rare.
The first fine announced in November 2011 against American Eagle was for $900,000. Pakistan International Airlines was hit with a $150,000 fine in September 2012. Two fines in January 2013 were for $150,000 against Panama's Copa Airlines and $55,000 against Virgin America. And United Airlines was fined $130,000 in February 2013.
The department is investigating 34 tarmac delays in Charlotte during a snowstorm Feb. 16.
When Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Thursday possible flight delays from furloughs, he said there was flexibility to avoid fines if delays are caused by furloughs.
"There is language in the rule that allows us to take into consideration circumstances like this," LaHood said.