Score one for harried air travelers. In about four months, we'll no longer be made to feel like hostages on the tarmac as we wait for a thunderstorm to blow through or a snowplow to complete its necessary work before being cleared for takeoff.

Relief comes courtesy of the federal Department of Transportation, which has approved regulations limiting the time airlines can keep passengers on a waiting aircraft to a maximum of three hours. If the wait should exceed two hours, carriers will be required to offer food and drink. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the on-board restroom facilities must be kept fresh and usable.

The penalty for failing to comply is stiff: $27,500 per passenger.

Alas, this may be as close to heaven as it gets in a modern air-travel world filled with more fees and fewer passenger services.

As vocally as the airlines complain about these new rules, and they do, they strike us as little more than a codifying of basic norms of common courtesy and an essential regard for human comfort.

The carriers' gripe is that the new DOT regs will slow down the system and create even more delays as passengers must be herded back onto the airplane rather than being held onboard. Perhaps. But people aren't cattle and deserve basic comforts as they fly.

Almost any frequent flier has a horror story to tell about being stuck for hours in an aircraft where fresh air isn't circulating, temperatures (and tempers) are rising, onboard toilets are overflowing and explanations are, all too often, vague.

The last straw came, apparently, when a Continental Express flight from Houston to Minneapolis last August was diverted to Rochester, Minn., after thunderstorms closed the Twin Cities airport.

Fifty-one passengers, including two small children, were forced to spend six hours overnight in the cramped regional jet, only a few feet away from the relative comfort of the Rochester air terminal.

The episode rightly caught the attention of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and the new rules were quickly pushed through.

This may not exactly herald a new day in air travel, but it promises to make those too-long days when weather and other inconveniences intrude on hectic schedules that much more comfortable for the airlines' paying customers.

It is welcome.

—Houston Chronicle