Surviving dreaded delay on airport tarmac
By Harry R. Weber
Associated Press
Published: Saturday, Sept. 19, 2009 4:23 p.m. MDT
ATLANTA — You’re tired, hungry, have a cranky baby on your lap and all you want to do is get off the plane, but you can’t because it’s been on the tarmac for hours waiting to take off.
A six-hour delay with 47 people aboard a small Continental Express plane at a Minnesota airport recently is the extreme. In June, the most recent month for which data is available, there were 278 tarmac delays of three hours or more. That was the most this year but still only .05 percent of the total number of scheduled flights that month.
Information is the best ammunition in such situations. Experts advise that passengers be prepared. Here are answers to some questions travelers may ask.
Q. Can’t I just get off the plane?
A. No. The captain has ultimate control of the plane and generally will determine if and when to return to the gate and allow passengers to get off.
“It’s not a democracy,” says Robert Mann, an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, N.Y.
Passengers can request that the aircraft return to the gate, or if they have a cell phone they can call airline customer service or their carrier’s frequent flier hotline and exert pressure that way. If you have a medical condition or are ill, notify the crew immediately. But taking matters into your own hands is ill-advised. An FAA spokeswoman says unruly passengers who make a run for the aircraft door could be arrested for interfering with the crew.
Q. Why would the airline choose to keep the passengers onboard rather than let them get off?
A. It takes a lot of time to get passengers off a plane and then back on again. If the weather clears up at the airport where you are heading, the crew may have a limited opportunity to take off. Tarmac delays often occur because of bad weather, congestion and air traffic control issues. Further delays could be caused by allowing passengers to get off, which also could mean passengers with connecting flights might miss those connections.
Airline operations also are a factor. Because of weak demand for air travel due to the ailing economy, airlines have taken large chunks of seats out of the air and are offering fewer flights and frequencies to some destinations.
“It may add to the reason there are the tarmac delays and not the cancellations,” says Terry Trippler, an airline and travel expert based in Minneapolis. “The airlines realize that there aren’t a lot of flights to get them onto alternate flights, and that’s why they rather just wait and get them out.”
Q. How long can the crew keep me on the plane before heading back to the gate?
A. There’s no law or rule mandating that the crew allow you to get off after a certain period. Legislation introduced in the Senate in July would require planes delayed more than three hours to return to a gate. A rule proposed by the Department of Transportation would require airlines to have contingency plans for dealing with lengthy tarmac delays. Some airlines have implemented customer commitments in recent years to try to appease passengers. JetBlue Airways vows to deplane passengers if an aircraft is delayed on the ground for five hours. That was instituted in 2007 after passengers on a JetBlue flight waited 11 hours on the tarmac at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Q. Will I get something to eat and drink while I wait?
A. Airlines generally only stock enough food and drinks for the length of the flight. Passengers on the Continental Express flight later complained about not being offered food and drink during their lengthy tarmac delay. Several airlines have procedures for dealing with onboard delays that include making sure the cabin temperature is appropriate and passengers have access to restrooms, and food and water.
After a recent AirTran Airways flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta was diverted to Chattanooga, Tenn., flight attendants offered bottled water and pretzels to passengers during the 90-minute tarmac delay.
Delta Air Lines says on its Web site that in the event of onboard ground delays under certain circumstances, it promises to make timely announcements regarding the flight status, allow customers to use cell phones and laptop computers and provide snacks and beverages to customers when “reasonable and safe to do so.” Experts advise that passengers should carry food and drink with them on flights in case of a delay while onboard.
“Instead of that extra pair of shoes in your carryon, you put an extra sandwich or an extra bottle of water,” Trippler says.
Q. What can I do to pass the time during a tarmac delay?
A. On a long delay you might be hoping that you’re not stuck next to someone who wants to share his life story. In that case on-flight TV or radio may be your salvation. What’s more, it’s always smart to carry something to read to get you through a delay no matter how long.
If you have a connecting flight that you might miss, use your cell phone to call airline customer service and rebook your next flight. The one thing experts agree on is that it is important to stay calm in those situations.
Q. What kind of compensation am I entitled to if I experience a tarmac delay?
A. Typically, circumstances beyond the control of an airline are not covered in terms of passengers being provided compensation, says aviation consultant Mark Kiefer of CRA International in Boston. However, airlines have discretion to help passengers out, and some even have policies for allowing for compensation when there are tarmac delays.
For instance, JetBlue customers who experience an onboard ground delay on arrival for two hours or more after scheduled arrival time are entitled to a voucher. The voucher is good for future travel on JetBlue in the amount paid by the customer for their roundtrip ticket.
Q. Where can I get more information about airline policies regarding tarmac delays?
A. Airline Web sites are a good place to start. Check the airline’s contract of carriage, which outlines its responsibilities to customers and the action it will take in various situations.

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