What Are Your Rights as a Passenger When You're Trapped in a Plane on the Tarmac?

Being stuck on the tarmac can feel excruciating — but passengers do have rights.

It's not pleasant, but it is an inevitable part of travel: delays. And worse, even, than sitting in an airport waiting for your delayed flight to finally begin boarding is when you've made it all the way onto the plane, squeezed yourself into your tiny seat, buckled up and then you just ... wait. And wait and wait.

In spite of the voice over the intercom optimistically informing passengers that they should "sit tight" because "we'll be on our way soon," soon never seems to arrive, leaving patience to wane and tempers to fray. If you've been sitting on the tarmac for more than than hour, you might start to seriously think about just getting off the plane. But is that really an option?

Actually, yes. Although you'll need to sit tight for a little longer. U.S Department of Transportation regulations state that "airlines are required to begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off before three hours (of delay) for domestic flights and four hours for international flights."

Weigh your decision carefully though, as airlines are not required to let you back on once the flight is ready to depart, and you might end up separated from your luggage: "The airline may not be required to offload any passenger’s checked bags before the plane takes off," the DOT states. "Passengers will need to contact the airline about returning their checked luggage at a later time."

Should you choose to wait it out, you won't go hungry or thirsty, according to the DOT. "Airlines must provide you with a snack, such as a granola bar, and drinking water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate (in the case of a departure) or touches down (in the case of an arrival)." There are no federal requirements for an airline to financially compensate passengers, but many will do so anyway, so don't be afraid to ask, politely.

Surprisingly, considering they meet the very basic level of humanity, such regulations are fairly new. Following a few highly publicized cases in 2008 and 2009 in which people were trapped on planes for hours, the DOT to mandated the new rules in 2011. And it takes them seriously. When Southwest broke the law in 2014, the DOT fined it $1.6 million.

Nevertheless, flyers' rights advocates are concerned that the Trump administration may roll back the tarmac delay regulations (along with others). Last year, reported The Los Angeles Times, the DOT temporarily froze all pending airline-industry regulations as part of an administration push to cut the burden of red tape on American businesses. And it asked the public and airlines for comments on existing regulations that could be halted, revised or repealed.

"Many of the regulations/initiatives adopted or issued at the end of the previous administration are extremely costly, will be unduly burdensome on the airline industry, and should be repealed or permanently terminated," United Airlines said in its statement filed with the DOT.

Consumers' groups are not convinced. "The airlines are pretty clear that they want every consumer protection law repealed or not enforced," Paul Hudson, president of the nonprofit group Flyersrights.org, told The L.A. Times in March. "I'm concerned that they would try to repeal the few consumer-protection regulations that are out there." 

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