Spurred by complaints from passengers -- including those stranded overnight in a foul-smelling airliner on the tarmac in Rochester this summer -- federal officials announced new rules Monday that limit to three hours how long domestic passengers can be detained on grounded U.S. airliners.

"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 issued along with the rules, which take effect in April. Airlines would be fined $27,500 per passenger for each violation of the three-hour limit, he said.

Minnesotan Link Christin, 56, a William Mitchell College of Law professor who was stranded on the Rochester tarmac for six hours in August on Continental Express Flight 2816, said the change is "wonderful news for consumers."

He described the experience as "a nightmare." The 47 passengers were jammed into a 50-seat airplane, which was operated by ExpressJet Airlines and had been diverted to Rochester because of bad weather in the Twin Cities. Passengers did not have food or water; there were crying babies on board, and the toilet broke down halfway through the night.

"And we're sitting 100 yards away from the terminal with lights and bathrooms and people," Christin said, but the travelers were not allowed off the plane. The Lindstrom, Minn., resident said the flight may have moved the government because it gained so much media attention.

The ruling "is a Christmas miracle for the flying public," said Kate Hanni of the passenger-rights group FlyerRights.org in Napa Valley, Calif. "It proves that a true grass-roots effort can make a difference."

However, the airline industry said the time limit will simply make things worse.

"We will comply with the new rule even though we believe it will lead to unintended consequences -- more canceled flights and greater passenger inconvenience," said James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines.

"In particular, the requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible."

Asked for comment about the new rule, Delta Air Lines referred to the ATA's response.

Continental spokeswoman Mary Clark said Monday that the company has had a policy since early this year that "no passenger should be subjected to a tarmac delay of three hours or more without being given the opportunity to get off the aircraft, providing it can be done safely and securely."

Under the new federal rules, exceptions will be allowed only if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations. 

The Department of Transportation also announced that carriers must provide adequate food and drinking water for passengers within two hours of a delay on the tarmac and maintain operable bathrooms.

"I've said air travelers can consider this new rule a holiday gift, but it goes way beyond that," LaHood wrote Monday morning on his blog. "Everyone at this DOT knows protecting passenger rights is really just the right thing to do."

LaHood said the changes come in response to a series of incidents in which passengers were stranded on the ground aboard aircraft for lengthy periods and to address the high incidence of flight delays and other consumer problems.

In November, a total of $175,000 was levied against the three airlines involved in the Aug. 8 incident. Continental Airlines and ExpressJet were fined a total civil penalty of $100,000; Mesaba Airlines, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, was assessed $75,000. Mesaba provided ground handling for the flight, and federal investigators faulted a Mesaba agent for refusing to allow the ExpressJet passengers into the Rochester terminal.

Continental issued full refunds and offered additional compensation.

The number of flights that sit on the tarmac for three or more hours is a minuscule portion of the number of overall flights, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Through November, Delta had 144 flights in that category, while Northwest had 43, according to the bureau.

Consumer advocates have pressed the department and Congress for at least a decade to do something about extended tarmac delays. Past efforts have fizzled in the face of industry opposition and promises to reform.

Congress and the Clinton administration tried to do something after a January 1999 blizzard kept Northwest Airlines planes on the ground in Detroit, trapping passengers for seven hours. New regulations were put in place but most proposals died, including one that airlines pay passengers kept waiting on a runway for more than two hours.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar hailed as "a victory for airline passengers everywhere" Monday's move by regulators, adding, "Passengers shouldn't be held captive for hours on end when the plane is just sitting on the airport tarmac." Sen. Al Franken said he is satisfied the policy change will prevent more "ordeals" like the one in Rochester.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482 • paul.walsh@startribune.com Suzanne Ziegler • 612-673-1707 • sziegler@startribune.com