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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, this is not covered by the Geneva Conventions, but being trapped in an airplane waiting for takeoff sometimes feels like a crime against humanity.

Starting Thursday, airline passengers stuck on the tarmac do have some redress. Theres a new federal rule that says if your plane has not taken off three hours after leaving the gate, you have the right to get off.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Its happened to many of us, youre waiting for your flight to take off, and then weather or air traffic intervenes. A quick taxi to the runway becomes an ordeal for people like Syed Hussain.

Mr. SYED HUSSAIN: Five hours on Houston Hobby Airport. I think a thunderstorm. They were trying to take off but they just waited and waited and...

ABRAMSON: Did they feed you and take good care of you or?

Mr. HUSSAIN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUSSAIN: Unfortunately not.

ABRAMSON: Hussain was waiting for his bags at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Starting today, passengers like Hussain can complain to this man.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): The pilot has to go back to the terminal when the three-hour period is up to allow people to get off of the plane and do what they want to do.

ABRAMSON: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says if the airline misses that deadline it will face a fine of fine of $27,500 per passenger. And passengers will no longer have to go hungry. They can look forward to those yummy snacks and potable water after two hours. Oh, and the lavatory must be working.

The airlines would not speak for this story. They said they were in compliance mode, meaning they have given up trying to fight the rule. They had argued they have no control over the weather, and that the rule would be too costly for them. Many are struggling financially, but Ray LaHood says, in essence, deal with it.

Mr. LAHOOD: I have no doubt theyll figure out ways to schedule planes to account for the fact that there could be delays.

ABRAMSON: LaHood is responding to a deluge of complaints about the problem. The tipping point came last summer, when a Continental flight spent six hours on the runway in Rochester, Minnesota, because no one would let the passengers into the terminal.

The Transportation Department should garner big points from consumers for taking this step, judging by sentiments at BWI Airport.

Ms. ABBEY COLE: My name is Abbey Cole. I just flew in from San Diego. The weather obviously is an uncontrollable force. However, I have no sympathy for the airlines due to their mismanagement.

Mr. DREW HEVLE: I think three hours is probably too long to sit there with, usually, no air conditioning. And then they don't give you any service or anything while you're sitting there. They won't open the bar.

ABRAMSON: That was Drew Hevle of Houston, where he says it can get mighty steamy sitting on the tarmac.

Some companies recently asked for waivers from the rule at certain airports, saying for example that construction at JFK is making it tough to follow a schedule. But Secretary Ray LaHood told them - forget it.

Secretary LAHOOD: This rule does not apply to international flights. Most of the flights at Kennedy are international flights.

ABRAMSON: There is potential downside for passengers. When in doubt, airlines may simply cancel flights to pre-empt possible fines. So, when bad weather strikes, passengers will be just as stuck, but they will be able to stretch their legs.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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