Obama administration orders airlines to limit tarmac wait times, provide food and bathrooms to stuck passengers.

Responding to horror stories of stranded travelers, the Obama administration ordered airlines today to allow passengers to disembark from planes that have been stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours. With the move, the Obama administration is “sending an unequivocal message to airlines that it won’t tolerate” excessive delays:

Airlines will be required to provide food and water for passengers within two hours of a plane being delayed on a tarmac, and to maintain operable lavatories. They must also provide passengers with medical attention when necessary. […]

“Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

Between January and June of this year, airlines stranded passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours 613 times. One particularly horrendous incident in August brought the issue to national attention. Passengers on a Continental flight from Houston to St.Paul-Minneapolis were forced to stay in a cramped commuter jet overnight with a foul-smelling lavatory after thunderstorms diverted their plane to Rochester, MN and gate crews wouldn’t allow them off the plane. The ordeal led to the first-ever government fine of a airline for a tarmac stranding, with the three companies involved being forced to pay $175,000 for their negligence. Airlines have “strongly opposed a hard time limit on tarmac strandings,” claiming it will disrupt their operations. But travelers who have experienced lengthy delays will likely be grateful for the new rule, which will take affect in 120 days.