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Airline passengers revolt against hours spent on the tarmac

Officials insist only a small fraction of flights have lengthy delays. But advocates urge new rights for passengers.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 3, 2009

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported this week that in January, almost 60 planes sat stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours. Here, an American Airlines flight prepared to take off from Logan International Airport in Boston.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor


New York

If you're stranded on a plane for more than three hours, should the airline be required to make sure you have food, water, and clean bathrooms? Or should it take you back to the terminal?

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That's the heart of a fierce debate going on in Washington, one that has very real consequences for hundreds of people every month who end up parked on the tarmac for more than three hours.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported this week that in January, almost 60 planes sat stranded on the tarmac for more than three hours. Another 39 diverted from their original destination were also delayed for three hours or more. Sixteen planes were delayed 10 hours or more because of being diverted.

Most passengers simply grumble at disrupted travel plans. But last week, a Scottish man was arrested after he tried to open the emergency door on a flight bound for Las Vegas that had sat on the tarmac for several hours.

That's an extreme example, but passengers' rights organizations say they receive thousands of complaints every month from frustrated people who feel trapped as they sit buckled into their seats for hours waiting for their plane to take off.

Several proposals for a passengers' bill of rights are pending in Congress. The Department of Transportation has also proposed regulations that would require all airlines to make contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and make them part of the legally binding "contract of carriage" that is part of every airline ticket.

The airlines are adamantly opposed to such measures. They say such contingency planning is better left to individual airlines, which could post them on their websites. Passengers' rights advocates contend that plans posted on websites would be unenforceable, and thus the airlines could ignore them.

For the airlines, the BTS figures on lengthy flight delays confirm what they've argued all along: that the number of flights involved in such delays is a small fraction of the more than 20,000 planes that take off every day and thus should not prompt new regulation.

"It comes as no surprise that with more detailed data, the number of reported delays is up slightly with the addition of roughly 26 delays per month," says David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the nation's major carriers.

Passengers' rights groups disagree.