Tarmac Time is Money

Tarmac Time is Money

A hassle free, safe and timely flight is every air traveler’s ultimate expectation.  However, many are the days we fasten our seat belts, switch off the mobile phones and take a deep breath for the take-off which never seems to come. Instead, we endure a steady trickle of delay announcements, each successively raising and dashing hopes that connections will be made.

The Dreaded Tarmac Delay

There once was a time when an aircraft pushed off the gate and headed straight for the runway.  Sadly, this is becoming a rare occurrence.  Lengthy tarmac delays happen for a number of reasons: poor weather conditions, technical failures, runway congestion, and sometimes security reasons.  In most cases, the causes of delay are neither in the airline’s nor the airport’s control.  In fact, the airline is just as worried as you are about making it to the next airport on time.

Why is the Government Involved?

Unfortunately, what David Neelman calls “the worst operational week in JetBlue’s . . . history” sparked the implementation of a new set of government regulations that do little more than mirror common sense.  The Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 2007  caused lengthy airline travel delays.  JetBlue became the poster child for the horrific tarmac delay when it continued to load airplanes and allow them to taxi to the runway thinking snow would quickly turn to rain.  It didn’t.  And some passengers waited six hours to return to an open gate.

Although passengers stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours “received a full refund and a voucher for a free roundtrip flight” from JetBlue many complained to the Department of Transportation (DOT).  The result? Comprehensive regulations designed to protect consumers from having to suffer from similar events.  The tarmac delay rules, encapsulated in the Enhanced Protections for Airline Passengers (14 CFR 259) — apply to all US carriers operating aircraft with 30 or more passenger seats, and similar foreign carriers operating to and from the US.

What Does the Government Want?

Thankfully, unlike the European Union, the US government is not requiring the blanket payment of fees in the event of delays.  The DOT regulations are intended to prevent, not compensate tarmac delays.  As such, air carriers are required to file a contingency plan with the DOT outlining their tarmac delay procedures.  Pursuant to this plan, each airline must:

  1. provide passengers with adequate food and water within the first two hours of any tarmac delay;
  2. maintain adequate toilet facilities during the delay; and importantly
  3. return planes to the gate and let passengers off any time a flight is sitting on the tarmac for three hours (four hours for international flights).

The provision for return to the gate may be overridden for safety or security reasons.  Time limits are calculated from when the airplane doors are closed.

And the DOT isn’t kidding around.  As recently as December 2016, it imposed a penalty of  $1.6 million on American Airlines for multiple infractions from 2013 to 2015. The rules may seem aggressive but they seem to be working.  The Air Traffic Consumer Report of 2014 revealed that tarmac delays per year had reached its lowest number.

Though the potential horror of being stuck inside a shut airplane for hours remains, passengers should be consoled to know that at the least, airlines have to be prepared.

éClat Law is delighted to present this new article from guest blogger Dhananga Pathirana.  Dhananga is an Attorney at Law from Sri Lanka, where her practice focused on international air carrier liability, safety regulations, labour relations and telecommunications. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Air & Space Law at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.  She is the recipient of the International Aviation Women’s Association (IAWA) Scholarship for 2016.