What If I … Am Stuck On The Tarmac?

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Photo credit: Jose Martin via Unsplash.

By Molly Jensen

I love flying, but what I don’t love are the cramped seats and the seatmate who can’t keep their hair to themselves and how stuffy it gets, even with the air turned on full-blast. But that’s your life when you’re stuck on the tarmac.

In 2010, the Department of Transportation created a regulation stating that domestic flights cannot be on the tarmac for more than three hours, with exceptions only for safety, security, or if air traffic control fears moving the plane would disrupt airport operations. While stuck, the airline must:

  • Maintain operable lavatories
  • Provide medical attention
  • Provide adequate food (whatever that means) and potable drinking water within two hours of being delayed
  • Post and maintain updated flight-delay data on the airline’s website
  • Have an employee monitor delays and cancellations, respond to consumers’ inquiries, and provide information on the complaint filing process

There are some stiff penalties, too: If airlines can’t or don’t comply, they’re fined up to $27,500 for each passenger stuck on the tarmac.

With such a hefty fine, some airlines skirt the rules, like staying at the gate and leaving the plane door open to keep the three-hour clock from starting, or they simply cancel flights rather than risk the tarmac limit. Also, a study released at the end of 2015 found that while the DOT’s rule may prevent passengers from being cramped on a plane, it increases the length of the passengers’ delay.

This study was funded by part of the Federal Aviation Administration, but it’s still something to think about. What’s worse: being stuck in a plane for hours, or being more delayed, possibly overnight, because you’re allowed to deplane?

Bad weather is one of the chief causes of tarmac delay.
Bad weather (but not crows) is one of the chief causes of tarmac delay.

Long delays like this don’t happen often, and most of the time when they do, it’s because of bad weather. But other problems could be:

  • Mechanical issues
  • Heavy air traffic
  • No available gate
  • No available ground crew
  • Issues onboard, like a medical emergency or an unruly traveler
  • If it’s an international flight, the airport needs proper immigration and customs personnel set up

With any of these situations, keeping passengers onboard makes it easier to take off the moment the plane is cleared, whereas letting passengers off the plane can make it difficult to load everyone back up again. And since one delay can start a chain reaction of delays for the rest of the day, it kind of makes sense why airlines want people to stay cramped on a plane.

It’s not fun, and no one (including the flight crew) wants it to happen, but sometimes it does. So it’s good to understand all of the angles.

If you’re concerned you’ll find yourself stuck (if there’s bad weather in the forecast, for instance), here are a few things you can do to make yourself more comfortable if you do find yourself stuck on the tarmac for a while:

  • Bring a full water bottle on the plane, whether that means buying one or filling one up after you go through security.
  • Bring snacks, or even a full meal, on board with you.
  • Use the bathroom when you have the chance. Go before you board, a little while before landing, and if movement is allowed while stuck go right away before the lavatories start getting gross.
  • Have all of your electronics charged before boarding, and bring a fully charged portable charger with you.
  • Have something to do: book, crosswords, knitting or crochet, Sudoku, paper and pen to write about your woes.
  • Pack essentials in your carry-on, including medication, an extra outfit, toothbrush, your favorite sandals, and so on.
  • If you’re traveling with kids, have double of everything.

Beyond that, bring an understanding and patient attitude. The airline crew isn’t out to ruin your trip; it’s forces beyond their control that are causing the delay.

You should also bring AirCare from BHTP. For about the price of a checked bag, you get $1,000 if you’re stuck on the tarmac for more than two hours.

And one more thing: Bring an extra comb – you know, for that seatmate with the hair.

Molly Jensen is a member of the marketing team at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. Her “What If I …” articles appear monthly.