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JetBlue flight sits on tarmac for seven hours. Will anyone be fined?

Airlines can be fined $27,500 per passenger for flights that sit on the tarmac for more than three hours. But critics say enforcement has been too soft. The JetBlue delay could be a test.

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JetBlue planes, each with distinctive tail art, are seen at the JetBlue terminal at Long Beach Airport in Long Beach, Calif., last week.

Reed Saxon/AP

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The tale of a JetBlue flight stranded on a runway outside Hartford, Conn., for more than seven hours Saturday could be a fresh test of new federal rules that fine airlines for tarmac delays of longer than three hours.

JetBlue Flight 504 was one of several flights that reportedly sat on runways for hours after they were diverted from landing at New York-area airports because of a combination of events, including the Northeast snowstorm and equipment failures. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is investigating.

Now, the airline industry and passenger's rights groups will be watching to see how the Department of Transportation applies its new rules about tarmac delays. “They’ll be watching what the DOT decides to do, who is at fault, is someone is fined, and how much,” says Andrew Compart, senior editor for Aviation Week.

Tarmac delays are the bane of the airline industry, creating hardships for passengers and bad publicity for the airlines. A high-profile incident in February 2007, involving a JetBlue plane that sat on the tarmac for 11 hours at John F. Kennedy International Airport, led to new federal rules in April 2010. Among other things, the rules penalize airlines up to $27,500 per passenger for domestic-bound planes that sit on the tarmac longer than three hours without allowing the passengers to exit.

There are signs that the rules are having an impact. Tarmac delays of more than 3 hours declined 97 percent in the first 12 months of the rule, according to the US Government Accountability Office.

But critics say that the rules are not enforced strictly enough, and that airports – which are often a primary cause of the delays – are not held accountable.

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