Stuck on the Tarmac

by Beth Whitman (October 29th, 2013)

Airplane TarmacLast week, United Airlines was fined $1.1 million by the Department of Transportation for holding people on the tarmac for more than three hours at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. This was the largest fine levied against an airline since a rule went into effect in 2010. The rule is meant to protect passengers from being stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours for domestic flights and more than four hours for international flights.

While this issue still does persist, amen to airlines finally being held accountable for it!

That fine will be divvied up with a portion going to the government, a portion going into equipment to better monitor planes and the airfield, and a smaller portion doled out to the United customers affected (939 in all).

You may have noticed a behavior change in the airlines since that law took effect (I have) but, as shown in the United case, not all airlines are complying just yet.

My Experience
In January of 2012, I was on a Delta flight at Sea-Tac Airport headed to Salt Lake City for a trade show. It was a rare snow day for Seattle. As I sat in my window seat on the left side of the plane, I watched as the ground crew de-iced the wings. They then moved the equipment to the right side. By the time they finished de-icing the right side, the left side was iced up again. United Airlines SnowBack and forth they went.

I watched as the clock ticked by. One hour. Two hours. Two and a half hours. As it was getting close to three hours, a flight attendant made an announcement that they were still unsure when we would depart but that we could get off the plane if we wanted to.

We pulled back up to the gate and several of us deplaned. As we did so, the gates shut behind us and the plane took off.

We were given no information that the plane was about to depart and were not given the chance to get back on the flight after the gate was closed.

My flight was gone and so were my chances of getting to SLC because so many flights had been cancelled that there was a back up of a couple of days to get another flight. By then I was due to return home.

In fairness to Delta, they immediately credited my credit card for the flight (and later gave me 5,500 in mileage points because I complained about the situation). But I had lost three days of business meetings that could not be replicated. It was as a result of, as Delta says, “the lack of information provided by our team members regarding the status of Flight 1634.”

The likely scenario on my Delta flight was that the crew was trying to cover their asses by not keeping us on the tarmac for more than three hours. They were quickly given the OK to depart and they didn’t bother to alert the passengers who had gotten off the flight. I suppose the one saving grace was that I didn’t have any checked baggage (I feel sorry for the poor folks who did!).

So yay for the rule that allowed us off the plane but boo because they weren’t communicating properly. Hopefully that, too, will change in time.

Now What?
I realize it must be a tremendously difficult job for pilots and air traffic control to coordinate flights and available gates, particularly during bad weather. But without fining the airlines for irresponsible behavior, more instances such as the one at JFK where passengers were held for 11 hours will continue.

The fact that United was fined for their actions at O’Hare is definitely a great start. It’s also gotten this issue back in the news which is a great thing. In an era when travelers’ rights seem to be diminishing, I’m glad to see this issue getting more exposure.

What Can You Do?
Not to sound too fatalistic but there’s likely nothing you can do to remedy the situation if you get stuck on the tarmac. My best suggestion is, especially if you’re traveling during inclement weather, to bring snacks and water on the flight with you. It’s highly unlikely that food service will be offered as the crew will be trying to get the plane off the ground. Also be sure to have a book or something else to keep you occupied. Something without a battery so you don’t risk running it down while you’re waiting for takeoff.

Yup – travel has become a bit more of a hassle these days. But it doesn’t have to be a terrible experience. You could do like these guys from an Aeroflot flight. After being stuck on a couple of different planes over the course of five hours, they got the passengers singing, I Believe I Can Fly.

Now that’s making lemonade!

Travel Well,


Photo credits:
Airplane on Tarmac by Diesel Demon
United on Tarmac by Cliff

On October 29th, 2013 at 10:58 am, Marsha said:

It’s nice that this is finally being addressed although sitting on the tarmac for a couple hours is still crazy, but it’s a start. And wow crazy story – can’t believe they just left. Total miscommunication for sure. Great tip for bringing water and snacks – I’ve been stuck only once but it was only for two hours but yes, water helped. Great post!

On October 30th, 2013 at 10:40 pm, Alex said:

Thanks for the article, very interesing. You mentioned that the delayed guys were singing on an Aeroflot flight, but following the link It is said they were flying from vegas to Phoenix. How come a russian airline is flying on US domestic routes?

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