2009-12-21T18:13:18-0600

Monday, December 21, 2009 - 2:13pm

WASHINGTON — The federal government will impose big fines starting this spring on airlines that keep passengers waiting on runways too long without feeding them or letting them off the plane.

Airlines that let a plane sit on the tarmac for more than two hours without giving passengers food or water, or more than three hours without offering them the option of getting off, will face fines of $27,500 a passenger, the secretary of transportation announced on Monday.

“This is President Obama’s Passenger Bill of Rights,” said the secretary, Ray LaHood. Various proposals by that title have been introduced in Congress in recent years, but none has passed.

The rule announced Monday, which takes effect in 120 days, has been in the works since 2007, but was sped up by an incident on Aug. 7, when a cramped regional jet flown by ExpressJet, flying as Continental Express, sat on the tarmac at Rochester, Minn., overnight, with 47 passengers.

The flight had diverted to Rochester unexpectedly, while waiting for the weather to clear at its intended destination, Minneapolis. Continental Express does not have gates at Rochester, but an employee of Mesaba Airlines, which does, told the Continental Express captain that the passengers could not be let into the terminal because the Transportation Security Administration screeners had gone home for the night.

That was incorrect. In November, the Transportation Department ruled that all three airlines were guilty of deceptive practices and assessed a civil penalty of $175,000.

Under the new rule, the fine could have been $1.3 million, although Mr. LaHood said that if returning to the terminal would cause a safety problem or interfere with operations at the airport, airlines would not be penalized.

While the Rochester case was an extreme example, the Transportation Department said that for 2007 and 2008 there were an average of 1,500 flights a year, with 114,000 passengers, held on the tarmac for more than three hours. Department officials said, though, that with a rule in place, the number of such delays was certain to fall. Airlines could comply by letting out any passenger who wanted to get off.

The airlines are generally reluctant to take an airplane back to the terminal, because the plane then loses its place in line for takeoff and must start again at the end.

Under the rule, the airlines will have to post on their Web sites details about incidents that exceed the two- or three-hour limits. And airplanes that do not carry any food will have to start carrying snacks for emergencies, Mr. LaHood said.

“They’re going to have to have peanuts, pretzels on their regional jets; they’re going to have to start stocking up,” he said.

The rule covers only domestic flights. Mr. LaHood said the incidence of such delays on international flights was lower and that those delays were caused by overseas air traffic controllers and other problems less in the control of airlines. But, he said, the rule might be extended to cover international travel.