Just what rights DO you have if you get stuck in airplane on a runway for hours this summer? Everything YOU need to know about the DoT’s official delay rules – and what they entitle you to

Tarmac delays are almost double what they were ten years ago, with severe weather and staffing shortages among the contributing factors. 

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there were 22,425 tarmac delays over an hour long in the U.S. from January to April in 2023. 

This compares to 12,739 tarmac delays of the same length during the same time period in 2013.   

For the first quarter of this year, Chicago O’Hare International Airport witnessed the highest number of tarmac delays (1,726), followed by John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (1,307), and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey (1,285). If you’ve got a flight coming up and worried about disruptions, read on for in the in and outs around tarmac delays, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT). 

Tarmac delays are almost double what they were ten years ago, with severe weather and staffing shortages among the contributing factors (stock image) 

What is a tarmac delay and when to the DoT’s rules apply?

A tarmac delay is defined by law as the ‘period of time when an aircraft is on the ground with passengers and the passengers have no opportunity to deplane.’

The DoT’s tarmac delay rules only apply to incidents at U.S. airports and to ‘covered carriers.’

A covered carrier means ‘a certificated carrier, a commuter carrier, or a foreign air carrier operating to, from or within the United States, conducting scheduled passenger service or public charter service with at least one aircraft having a designed seating capacity of 30 or more seats.’ 

Passengers who experience tarmac delays at a foreign airport while flying to the U.S. may be protected from extended tarmac delays but the DoT notes that these will comes under the laws of another nation.

How long can an airline keep me on the tarmac for? 

For flights departing from a U.S. airport, airlines are required to safely disembark passengers before three hours of waiting on the tarmac for domestic flights and for international flights, the limit is four hours. 

The same timeframe applies to flights landing at U.S. airports. In some cases, the DoT notes that waiting time might be longer due to ‘safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons.’

Airlines are required to provide passengers with information around a delay after 30 minutes of waiting on the tarmac. Afterwards, it is up to the airline to give updates when they ‘deem appropriate.’

A tarmac delay is defined by law as the 'period of time when an aircraft is on the ground with passengers and the passengers have no opportunity to deplane' (stock image)

A tarmac delay is defined by law as the ‘period of time when an aircraft is on the ground with passengers and the passengers have no opportunity to deplane’ (stock image) 

If an airline offers me the opportunity to disembark during a tarmac delay, is it required to let me back on for eventual takeoff?

An airline might offer passengers the option to disembark during a long delay if it is safe to do so.  

However, the DoT says that ‘passengers should be aware that if they choose to get off the airplane during a tarmac delay, airlines are not required to let them back on.’

This means the flight might take off without them and then it would be the passenger’s responsibility to find another flight at their own cost. 

They might also be left without their luggage, as the airline might not be required to unload checked baggage before take off. 

To retrieve their bags, passengers will need to arrange a delivery or pickup with the airline. 

What rights do I have during a tarmac delay?

The DoT stipulates that airlines must provide passengers with ‘a snack, such as a granola bar, and drinking water no later than two hours after the start of the tarmac delay.’

The airlines are not required to serve full meals during delays, even if they are lengthy. But they must have enough food and drinking water to serve every passenger. 

If there are safety or security concerns, the pilot might request for the food and beverage service to stop. For instance, ‘when an airplane is taxing on an active runway, it may be unsafe for flight attendants to hand out food and water.’ 

Along with a snack and water, passengers are entitled to a number of other things during tarmac delays including working toilets, a comfortable cabin temperature and ‘adequate medical attention, if needed.’

‘Three hours on the tarmac and just a puny bag of pretzels’: One VERY disgruntled traveler’s tarmac delay experience

Stephen Platz, 32, who works as a trader in New York, was recently subjected to a tarmac delay with American Airlines.

‘Myself and a friend were flying from La Guardia to Columbus, Ohio, for his birthday. We had booked festival tickets for the weekend and had Friday night dinner plans with his dad and a bunch of friends.  

‘We were meant to leave at 5:30pm but the flight kept getting delayed by around 30 minutes at a time. In the end we boarded the plane at 8:45pm and pulled out of the gate. 

‘Despite pulling out of the gate, we didn’t get very far and came to an abrupt halt. We could see hundreds of other planes had done the same. There was a big storm rolling in but we thought there might be a possibility of taking off. 

‘We sat there for quite a while with no food or water and the air conditioning was turned off for a bit. Eventually we got one puny bag of pretzels and water. After three hours, the cabin crew announced that they ‘legally’ couldn’t keep us on the plane any longer and we were invited to disembark. 

‘Once we got off, there was basically no information. Everyone was just standing around for an hour. Eventually they announced the flight was rescheduled for 1am but the crew had to leave at midnight so… who knows! 

‘At that point, the flight kept getting delayed like an hour at a time until the planned time was 12:30pm the next day. We decided to cancel our ticket so I am not sure if it ever took off.

‘In terms of getting a refund from the airline, the phone lines were jammed because thousands of flights were canceled that weekend. We eventually managed to process it online but we lost money on our music festival tickets and I also lost money on my seat upgrade. We were just reimbursed the cost of the original flight. 

‘I think it was pretty dumb of the airline to make us board, then make us sit for three hours, then deboard. Anyone looking at a weather map knew we were never taking off. 

‘Instead of making us wait and abiding to the legal time limit it would have been better if they had told us at 8pm that the flight wasn’t happening. The whole debacle just left a sour taste. It was almost an entire day wasted at the airport.’

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