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How a new law affected my delayed flight

About 20 minutes into my American Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles Thursday, the captain announced that one of the plane's front doors wouldn't quite close and we were going to have to turn back. We would circle for about 10 minutes to get rid of some fuel, then land at the Miami airport because it has a longer runway.

Shouldn't someone have noticed that before we took off?

After we had pulled up to a gate, the flight crew told us the airline would probably try to book us all on other flights. That wasn't much of an option, I knew, not when most flights these days are almost full -- as this one was. I thought it could take a couple days to find us all empty seats.

Some people pulled out food they had brought and ate it. Others got on the phone to rebook their connecting flights out of Los Angeles.

I posted a note on Facebook about the plane's troubles. Friends responded that TV stations were reporting my plane had had to return to Miami because a mechanical problem had caused the cabin to depressurize. Sure, I thought, an open door would do that.

No one around me seemed particularly perturbed about the delay. I think a lot of people are like me: We've learned not to set up critical business on a schedule that relies on a flight arriving on time. I was on a leisure trip with a flexible schedule.

The next announcement said that the door seemed to be functioning fine now. It had locked, the captain said, it just wasn't completely closed. Huh? But, he said, as soon as they could refuel and load on more food, we'd be off again.

Ten minutes later, though, the skies opened up, and the crew told us the airport had essentially shut down because of the lightning. We would be allowed to get off the plane and go into the terminal, 10 or 15 people at a time, but we should hurry back. Once the storm let up, we would depart quickly.

They wouldn't have let us off the plane a year or two ago, I told my seat mate, not before the horror stories about passengers trapped on planes that sat on the tarmac for six or eight hours, out of food, out of water, out of capacity in the sewage lines.

We were the beneficiaries of a new law that requires airlines to let passengers off a plane if there is a tarmac delay of three hours or longer. Our delay wasn't quite that long -- i think we were on the ground in Miami for about 2 1/2 hours -- but clearly the airline saw that a longer delay was possible.

I think many of the passengers were mollified by being able to get off the plane, use full-size restrooms, stretch their legs, buy a sandwich in the terminal.

Eventually the flight took off and we got to Los Angeles about four hours late. But I still wonder why no noticed the door wasn't completely closed.