These Are Your Rights During During a Lengthy Tarmac Delay

a plane sitting on the tarmac of an airport runway

Being stuck on a plane for nearly eight hours before the flight has even left the ground is among our top traveling nightmares. And fliers on last week’s Delta flight 2385 out of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to Miami lived through it.

Many of the passengers on that flight posted on social media that the experience was understandably a miserable one. “Kids and young families on the plane, terribly frustrated,” Juan Andres Ahmad tweeted. “NO food. Cabin crew offers nothing but excuses. Horrifying experience.” While the plane was stuck on the tarmac, tensions grew and several passengers reportedly got into an altercation. The crew was forced to call the Port Authority Police. One video posted on Twitter shows the aftermath of the confrontation, with angry passengers yelling at the officers and crew.

Though there are tarmac delay rules to prevent airlines from holding passengers on grounded planes that long, the reality is that situations like this still occur, as we saw last week. So was this Delta’s fault and do passengers have any recourse? Here’s what you need to know if a similar experience happens to you.

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.”

Delta says it abided by all of these regulations. “Customers were offered both water and snack service while on the tarmac and were also offered the chance to take a bus back to the terminal given the plane was parked on a remote pad for quite some time,” the carrier told CBS News in a statement, noting that the plane was delayed due to weather.

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. “In this case, it appears that the airline technically complied with law,” the AirHelp spokesperson says. “However, U.S. law provides air passengers little protections against airlines, which makes instances like this challenging.”

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 register a complaint with 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 fortunately don’t occur too often. “These extra-long tarmac delays are now exceptionally rare,” says Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant. “This one Delta incident was one departure out of the 171,000 flights they operate annually at JFK. 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.”

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines have also faced these miserable operational issues in the past. Those two, along with Delta, are among the U.S. carriers that have in the past been fined by the DOT for “lengthy” tarmac delays. Delta was fined $750,000 in March for 11 flights delayed for hours on the tarmac between January 2017 and February 2018, although 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 fined $1 million in March 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.

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