Mike Sargent, an Air Traffic Control specialist
FAA expects delays up to 3.5 hours due to air-traffic controller furloughs, but it's airlines who pay for any tarmac delays over 3 hours. Reuters

U.S. airlines find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Not only have Federal Aviation Administration budget cuts under the sequester caused massive delays at airports from coast to coast, but the airlines, under new rules pushed through in 2010, will have to pay passengers for any tarmac delays that surpass three hours.

Is it fair? Executives in the industry don’t think so. They want the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend the tarmac-delay rule and its hefty fines until the air-traffic control furloughs end in September.

Two industry trade groups, Airlines for America, or A4A, and the Regional Airline Association, or RAA, filed a motion last week asking DOT to shelve the rule for at least 90 days in the event that any violations come about as a result of the sequestration-related furloughs of air-traffic controllers, which took effect Sunday.

A4A and RAA cited the “substantial delay and disruption to air travel that will occur at U.S. airports from the FAA decision to implement daily ground delays” as a reason for the motion.

“To be clear, A4A and RAA are not proposing that DOT suspend the effectiveness of the tarmac regulations in general,” the groups wrote in a document submitted to DOT. “On the contrary, our requested exemption is narrowly tailored and would only apply for a temporary period at all U.S. airports.”

The exemption request is specific to a rule prohibiting carriers from allowing aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours before letting passengers deplane. Failure to do so can result in fines, laid out in April 2010, of up to $27,500 per passenger.

DOT extended the rule to four hours in August 2011 to cover international flights. Both changes came in response to several high-profile cases where passengers were stuck on grounded planes for as long as nine hours.

Though airlines bitterly opposed the tarmac delay regulations when first proposed, extended tarmac delays have declined dramatically.

A4A and RAA said the current exemption proposal is intended only “to provide airlines with the operating flexibility to respond to the expected flight delays resulting from the FAA’s delay plans.”

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and FAA chief Michael Huerta told industry executives last week that cutbacks could delay as many as 6,700 flights each day at the nation’s 14 biggest airports. Those airports include Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and the three hubs that serve New York City.

Huerta said maximum delays could be 210 minutes for flights into Atlanta; 132 minutes for flights to O’Hare; 80 minutes to LaGuardia; 67 minutes to Los Angeles; and 50 minutes to JFK and Newark. The delays differ due to the specific configurations at each hub, like intersecting runways, multiple control towers and varying technology. The figures are based on a study conducted at the 14 major airports on March 29, a clear weather Friday, and Huerta cautioned that the estimates don’t include unpredictable events like equipment failures and foul weather.

RAA said regional flights account for one quarter of the departures at each of the 14 airports the FAA identified for high operational delays and more than half of daily flights at four of the eight worst-hit airports: Chicago O’Hare (64 percent), Minneapolis-St. Paul (54 percent), New York LaGuardia (52 percent) and Newark Liberty (51 percent).

“The impact on our industry sector, especially our 160 million annual passengers, cannot be overstated,” RAA said in a statement.

DOT announced Monday it would review the motion filed by A4A and RAA, which it received on April 19.

“The department will consider the views of all interested parties,” it said, adding that any parties interested in sharing their views on the issue could submit correspondence by Friday.

Meanwhile, delays at the nation’s busiest airports show no signs of abating. According to FAA, there were 1,200 delays Monday attributable to staffing reductions, on top of 1,400 additional delays caused by weather and other factors. Interruptions to normal air travel were fewer Tuesday, though Boston Logan, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles and New York LaGuardia reported significant delays.