Trapped on the tarmac?

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The Department of Transportation put U.S. airlines on notice that they’d face steep fines for holding passengers on idling jets for more than 3 hours. Now, the DOT will also make international airlines pay up if they delay flyers more than four hours on the tarmac at U.S. airports.

Flight Delays and Horror Stories –  A couple of years ago, horror stories of people being “trapped on the tarmac” for hours on end were a staple of travel blogs. Back in August of 2009, FareCompare CEO Rick Seaney wrote about a flight heading to Minneapolis that diverted to Rochester, Minnesota due to storms; instead of allowing passengers off the plane while they waited out the bad weather, the flyers were forced to remain onboard for more than 9 hours. The angry passengers said they had no food, little to drink, crying babies and a single restroom that quickly started to smell.

Such incidents created a stir alright, and ultimately gave birth to a movement advocating passengers’ rights; one of the largest groups arising from such incidents was, after founder Kate Hanni’s own experience of being “falsely imprisoned” (her words) for hours on end aboard a flight in Dallas.

What the 3-Hour Tarmac Rule Means for Passengers – Despite the emotion such stories generated, few people actually suffered such long delays; according to the DOT’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in all of 2009, there were just 903 domestic flights delayed 3 hours or longer, out of a total of 6.4 million flights. However, statistics can be meaningless when you’re the one sitting on a packed plane with overflowing toilets.

Fines have been set for violations for both domestic and international airlines to the tune of $27,500 per passenger; the steep penalties may explain in part the sharp decrease in lengthy tarmac delays among U.S. carriers. Here’s what else is required by the 3-hour rule:

  • Passengers will be allowed to disembark after a 3-hour delay on the tarmac
  • Restrooms must be in good working order during onboard delays
  • Passengers requiring medical attention during onboard delays will receive it
  • Food and water will be provided after 2 hours onboard a delayed aircraft


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