Continental asks to be exempted from delays rule

DALLAS, TX If Continental doesn't get its wish, look for the nation's fourth-largest carrier to be quicker to cancel flights that might run up against the 3-hour limit.

Continental joined a growing list of carriers asking not to be punished if they violate a new government rule limiting how long passengers can be delayed on the tarmac.

JetBlue and Delta asked for exemptions from the rule last week, and American joined them on Tuesday. Those are the three biggest operators at Kennedy Airport, where the Federal Aviation Administration predicts delays will average up to 50 minutes during runway construction this spring.

Continental's hub in the New York area is at Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. The Houston-based airline said in a filing with the Transportation Department that runway construction at Kennedy will snarl air traffic throughout the New York area, including Newark and New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Continental said the airports share the same crowded airspace, and steps to relieve congestion at JFK could shift delays to the other airports. The carrier also said many long-haul flights routinely use Newark as an alternate airport if they can't land at JFK because of bad weather or other problems.

Continental said if JetBlue and Delta win exemptions from the delay penalties, it's only fair that airlines at LaGuardia and Liberty get the same break.

Transportation Department spokesman Bill Mosley said the carriers' requests were under review.

Last week, Continental CEO Jeff Smisek warned that rather than risk big fines, his airline will "cancel a lot of flights." He called the new Transportation Department edict on delayed flights a stupid rule and said long tarmac delays are extremely rare.

The government reported that in January, two flights were stuck on the tarmac for four hours or more, and 21 were delayed at least three hours.

Just this week, high winds forced a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to New York City to land in Newburgh, N.Y. Passengers were kept on the ground -- although allowed to leave the plane -- for more than four hours until they could be bused about 90 miles to Kennedy Airport.

A Transportation Department rule scheduled to take effect in late April could result in fines of up to $27,500 per passenger if airlines have a plane stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours and don't give passengers a chance to get off, presumably by returning the plane to the gate or using staircases and buses to shuttle passengers back to the terminal.

For a fully loaded Boeing 737, a midsize plane commonly used on domestic flights, that could mean a fine of more than $3.5 million. The airline industry lobbied hard against the 3-hour limit, saying it would lead to more canceled flights.

Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant who sides with airlines on the issue, blamed delays on the government's failure to modernize the air traffic control system. He said the Transportation Department's rule won't fix the problem.

Passenger-rights groups have pressured Congress and the Obama administration to do something about long delays. The DOT announced the new rule in December. Congress is considering a limit on tarmac delays in the FAA funding authorization bill.

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