(Photo credit: Joshua Ness via Unsplash.)
I love flying, but I don’t love the cramped seats and the seatmates who can’t keep their hair to themselves and how stuffy it gets, even with the air turned on full blast. But that’s life when you’re stuck on the tarmac.
In 2010, the Department of Transportation created a regulation stating that domestic flights cannot be on the tarmac for more than three hours, with exceptions only for safety, security, or if air traffic control fears moving the plane would disrupt airport operations.
While stuck, the airline must:
- Maintain operable lavatories
- Provide medical attention
- Provide adequate food (whatever that means) and potable drinking water within two hours of being delayed
- Post and maintain updated flight-delay data on the airline’s website
- Have an employee monitor delays and cancellations, respond to consumers’ inquiries, and provide information on the complaint filing process
There are some stiff penalties, too: If airlines can’t or don’t comply, they’re fined up to $27,500 for each passenger stuck on the tarmac.
With such a hefty fine, some airlines skirt the rules. They may stay at the gate and leave open the plane door to keep the three-hour clock from starting, or simply cancel flights rather than risk the tarmac limit.
Also, a 2015 study found that while the DOT rule may prevent passengers from being stuck on the tarmac, it increases the length of passengers’ delay.
This study was funded by part of the Federal Aviation Administration, but it’s still something to think about. What’s worse: being stuck in a plane for hours, or being more delayed, possibly overnight, because you deplane?
Long delays like this don’t happen often, and most of the time when they do, it’s because of bad weather.
For instance, in December 2017, 70 domestic flights were stuck on the tarmac more than three hours, and 22 international flights were stuck on the tarmac more than four hours. In a normal month the total between the two would be less than five.
The culprit? A vicious winter storm that struck the South. The one thing almost all these flights had in common: Atlanta. They were either flying out of or headed to Atlanta, and Atlanta was non-functional.
However, weather is just one reason for delayed flights. Other problems could be:
- Mechanical issues
- Heavy air traffic
- No available gate
- No available ground crew
- Issues onboard, like a medical emergency or an unruly traveler
- Lack of proper immigration and customs personnel for an international flight
With any of these situations, keeping passengers onboard makes it easier to take off once the plane is cleared, whereas letting passengers off the plane can make it difficult to load everyone back up.
And since one delay can start a chain reaction of delays for the rest of the day, it makes sense why airlines want people to stay onboard, not matter how uncomfortable they may be.
It’s not fun, and no one (including the flight crew) wants it to happen, but sometimes it does. So it’s good to understand all of the angles.
If you’re concerned you’ll find yourself stuck on the tarmac for a while (if there’s bad weather in the forecast, for instance), here's how to make yourself more comfortable:
- Bring a full water bottle on the plane, whether that means buying one or filling up one after you go through security.
- Bring snacks, or even a full meal, on board with you.
- Use the bathroom when you have the chance. Go before you board, a little while before landing, and if movement is allowed while you're stuck, go right away before the lavatories start getting gross.
- Have all of your electronics charged before boarding, and bring a fully charged portable charger with you.
- Have something to do: book, crosswords, knitting or crochet, Sudoku, paper and pen to write about your woes.
- Pack essentials in your carry-on, including medication, an extra outfit, toothbrush, non-matching socks, and your favorite sandals.
- If you’re traveling with kids, have double of everything.
Beyond that, bring an understanding and patient attitude. The airline crew isn’t out to ruin your trip; forces beyond their control are causing the delay.
And one more thing: Bring an extra comb – you know, for that seatmate with the hair.
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