These frustrating delays can mean sitting on the tarmac for hours before even taking off—here’s what to know if that happens.
eing stuck on a plane for hours before the flight has even left the ground is among our top travel nightmares. Unfortunately it’s not an unheard of occurrence, especially this summer as more planes take to the skies again, flight disruptions continue to surge, and volatile weather such as thunderstorms is more likely.
Though there are federal tarmac delay rules to prevent airlines from holding passengers on grounded planes for an extended time, the reality is that it can—and does—still happen. So do passengers have any recourse? Here’s what you need to know if you’re caught on the tarmac for hours.
How long can my flight be held on the tarmac?
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), there are tarmac delay rules that U.S. airlines must follow: Carriers are not allowed to hold a domestic flight on the tarmac for more than three hours and an international flight for more than four hours, barring a couple of exceptions (like if the pilot deems it’s for a safety reason). “After a tarmac delay of two hours, passengers must be provided with food, water, operational lavatories, and medical care (if medical care is needed),” says a spokesperson for air passenger rights group AirHelp. “After a tarmac delay of three hours in the U.S. or four hours outside of the U.S., passengers must be given the option to deplane.”
Can I get off the plane during a tarmac delay?
Offering to bus passengers back to the terminal after three hours is likely enough to meet air regulators’ requirements, but it is not always the best option for travelers. “U.S. law provides air passengers little protections against airlines, which makes instances like this challenging,” the AirHelp spokesperson says.
Making matters more complicated? If a passenger does choose to leave the plane, the airline is not obligated to let the passenger back on board. This means a passenger who chooses to deplane can miss their flight and be separated from any checked luggage. “In a situation where a passenger disembarks and the plane departs, it is the passengers’ responsibility to find another flight,” the AirHelp spokesperson says. You would also be responsible for contacting the airline and arranging the return of any luggage that departed, too. So getting off the plane is not always the easiest option.
My plane was held longer than three hours. What can I do?
Passengers always have the option to file a complaint against an airline if they feel they’ve been mistreated—and may be compensated if the airline agrees. Contact the airline via mail or email to register your complaint—or use an advocate company like AirHelp to file a complaint on your behalf, but be aware they’ll take a cut of any payout. The airline then has 60 days to respond, and if they don’t or if you are not happy with the response, you can submit a complaint to the DOT. “Whether or not the airline technically met the requirements, passengers should take action by filing a complaint,” the AirHelp spokesperson says. “If enough people complain, they could positively impact future changes to the law.”
How often do these delays happen?
Though these situations can be dramatic, they usually only occur on a handful of flights. “These extra-long tarmac delays are now exceptionally rare,” says Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant. “While typically, these are due to operational screw-ups—human error, where decisions fall through the cracks—it isn’t accurate to imply that these are intrinsic parts of air travel.”
In recent years, all of the largest U.S. airlines have been fined by the Department of Transportation for violating the tarmac delay rules. In 2021, United Airlines was fined $1.9 million for holding 20 domestic flights and five international flights on the tarmac at various U.S. airports for a “lengthy” amount of time without giving passengers a chance to deplane. The delays, which spanned from December 2015 to February 2021, affected a total of 3,218 passengers, according to the DOT.
Delta, American Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have also faced these miserable operational issues in the past. Delta was fined $750,000 in March 2019 for 11 flights delayed for hours on the tarmac between January 2017 and February 2018; most of those delays were connected to a power outage in Atlanta, Delta’s main hub, that crippled the airline’s gate and flight dispatch systems.
American was also fined $1 million in March 2019 for 13 long tarmac delays between December 2015 and January 2017. Southwest was fined $1.6 million in 2015 for hours-long tarmac delays of 16 aircraft at Chicago’s Midway Airport.
If you have experienced a lengthy delay check with your Federal Government for your rights, also you can contact your Airline Carrier for compensation.