Travelers who have had to steel themselves for delays, crowding and cancellations at New York's three major airports now, at least, won't have to wait on the tarmac for hours on end. Or at least, not four hours.
Federal officials today ordered airlines to let people off planes delayed on the ground after three hours.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the three-hour limit will send a message to airlines that they can't hold passengers hostage.
The airline industry has balked at the new regulation but said it will comply.
Perhaps no place will feel more immediate relief than New York which has been the scene of numerous travel horror stories.
In August, Sen. Charles Schumer and New York State Assemblyman Michael Gianris called for a passenger bill of rights that would prevent long tarmac delays. The move days came after 100 Sun Country passengers were held on the tarmac at JFK for six hours while waiting to take off for Minnesota.
Perhaps one of the most extreme examples on record came in 2007, when more than 1,000 passengers on nine different JetBlue flights were stranded on the tarmac at JFK for up to 11 hours as a snowstorm blew through the region.
JetBlue called the delays "unacceptable," but passengers likened the event to being kept hostage with limited access to food, water, and toilets and little ability to move around and stretch.
New York's three major airports -- LaGuardia, JFK and Newark -- are the country's worst offenders for late departures. According to a Brookings Institute study this year, about 30 percent of arrivals and 22 percent of departures in New York are late.
The survey finds that 10.1 percent of all flights now arrive at least two hours late, up from 4.3 percent in 1990. The average delay is nearly an hour, 41 minutes longer than in 1990.
The airline industry said the new regulations will only lead to more delays.
"The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible. Lengthy tarmac delays benefit no one,'' said Air Transport Association President and CEO James May.
Transportation officials, however, dismissed this as an excuse.
"I don't know what can be more disruptive to people than to be stuck sitting on a plane five, six, seven hours with no explanation," LaHood said at a briefing.
From January to June of this year 613 planes were delayed on the ground for more than three hours, their passengers kept on board.
Transportation officials, using 2007 and 2008 data, said there are an average of 1,500 domestic flights a year carrying about 114,000 passengers that are delayed more than three hours.