Passengers aboard delayed flights in the US will no longer run the risk of spending hours on the tarmac, thanks to new federal legislation announced Monday.

The new rules, due to come into effect in March 2010, will require US airlines to disembark passengers if the plane spends more than three hours on the ground. In a recent case in Minnesota, passengers on board a Continental Airlines flight were forced to spend six hours waiting to disembark after landing, turning the two-and-a-half hour Houston-Minneapolis flight into a nine-hour marathon. In February 2007, a JetBlue flight from New York to Cancun was delayed on the tarmac for nine hours during bad weather.

"Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly," said Transport Secretary Ray LaHood.

Carriers will also be required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories, as well as providing medical attention if necessary. The legislation will also prevent US airlines from scheduling flights that are chronically delayed and force them to publish flight delay information for all domestic services.

Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of an aviation panel, hailed the new rules.
"At best, being stranded on a plane for hours on end results in frustrated passengers," he said. At worst, it presents a passenger safety risk that we cannot afford."