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If you've ever been stranded in a plane on the airport tarmac, this story is for you. Today, the Transportation Department announced new limits on how long airlines can keep passengers sitting on the tarmac.

As NPR's Adam Hochberg reports, the new federal rule requires planes to return to the terminal if a delay exceeds three hours.

ADAM HOCHBERG: Long tarmac delays don't happen terribly often, maybe 100 times a month or so. But when they do, the conditions onboard planes can become pretty unbearable.

When a Continental Express flight was stranded in Rochester, Minnesota this summer, passengers complained they went eight hours with no food except pretzels. On other jets that have been forced to sit on the tarmac, the toilets have stopped working, the air has gotten hot and stale and parents of babies have run out of clean diapers.

Today, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said passengers deserve better treatment.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (U.S. Department of Transportation): You talk to anybody that's flown frequently, they will tell you that they've sat on a tarmac with no explanation why they're sitting there, no explanation as to why there's not at least something to drink or eat, and people are sick of it.

HOCHBERG: LaHood, this morning, announced the so-called three-hour rule, scheduled to take effect this spring. On domestic flights, it requires airlines to allow passengers off the plane if they've been sitting more than three hours. Flight crews also will be required to keep the lavatories working, provide medical attention to anyone who needs it. And once the delay hits the two-hour mark, supply adequate food and water. LaHood says airlines that don't comply will face fines of more than $27,000 for each inconvenienced passenger.

Sec. LAHOOD: These kinds of issues and these kinds of problems should've been addressed by the airlines. The fact that they haven't been means that we at DOT have to step up and look after the passengers.

HOCHBERG: The regulation's been a long time in the making. Congress has been discussing the issue of tarmac delays for a decade. The Bush administration set up a panel to study it almost two years ago. But today's announcement was a surprise even to those who've been calling for action.

Fliers rights advocate Kate Hanni has been promoting the three-hour rule since 2006 when she was stuck on a tarmac for nine hours in Texas. And she says she's heard from thousands of people who've been in similar situations.

Ms. KATE HANNI (Flier Rights Advocate): There were people with insulin reactions, people who had claustrophobia, people who could not handle being confined in that tight space without temperature control. And this is a victory for airline passengers.

HOCHBERG: The airline industry, though, is questioning whether the rule will have unintended effects that could make things worse for passengers. At the Air Transport Association, the industry's trade group, President Jim May predicted the rule will force airlines to cancel more flights entirely to avoid the risk that the plane will exceed the three-hour rule. And that, he says, could end up delaying customers even more.

Mr. JIM MAY (President, Air Transport Association): Trying to rebook passengers in today's incredibly congested environment - and the flights that got canceled out of Washington, D.C. over this weekend with the terrible snows are a good example of that. A lot of those people won't reach their destination for two, three, four days.

HOCHBERG: May says industry surveys suggest most passengers actually would prefer to withstand a long tarmac delay if the other option is having their flight canceled. Still, he says airlines intend to comply with the new rule.

That means even no-frills airlines likely will have to carry some snacks onboard in case they need them during a delay. And he says airlines will work with airports to find safe ways to deplane passengers, even if all the gates are occupied.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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