America's Worst Tarmac Delays
There are tarmac delays and then there are tarmac delays—just ask the Air Canada passengers who sat on a Vancouver runway for 12 hours a couple years ago. Food and water were rationed, and the cabin air was stifling. Even more torturous, the footbridge was still connected to the gate. Yet the airline refused to let passengers off the plane, blaming a combination of weather, fuel, and crew issues.
Fortunately, lengthy tarmac delays like this may well be a thing of the past. In May 2010, the Department of Transportation implemented a new rule: aircraft cannot idle on the tarmac for more than three hours with passengers on board or the airline will be fined. And those fines are substantial—$27,500 per passenger—which means that a 200-passenger plane could generate a whopping $5.5 million fine. Now airplanes rush back to the gate when a delay even begins to approach the three-hour mark.
Unfortunately, there’s little doubt that shorter delays will still occur. After all, most tarmac delays are due to weather, air traffic control gridlock, or a combination of the two. And when they occur at a major hub like New York’s La Guardia, Chicago’s O’Hare, or Dallas/Fort Worth, they radiate across the country and tie up hundreds of flights.
Still, the new rule seems to be working exceptionally well. According to DOT statistics, there were only 12 tarmac delays that lasted more than three hours from May through September 2010. Over the same period in 2009, a staggering 535 tarmac delays went over three hours. In fact, some of the worst delays on record happened in the past three years.
Though the number of long delays has decreased, it’s still awful to be stuck. In June 2010, passengers on Virgin Atlantic Flight VS001 spent four hours on the tarmac. Bad weather had forced this Newark-bound flight to land in Hartford, CT, where technical problems kept it grounded without lighting or air-conditioning. Ambulances were called when some of the 300 passengers fell ill. As a non-U.S. carrier, the airline wasn’t subject to fines, but customer service–focused Virgin did offer each passenger a free round-trip ticket.
To date, no airline has been fined for exceeding the three-hour limit, and the DOT seems to be taking a lenient approach. But the recent delays are mere inconveniences compared with a 2007 ice storm that delayed nine JetBlue flights for up to 11 hours. Between then and the new rule of May 2010, there have been some legendary incidents—read on to learn what a real tarmac delay is like.
Rochester, MN: 6 hours
On August 7, 2009, a Continental flight operated by ExpressJet flying from Houston to Minneapolis was diverted to Minnesota’s Rochester International Airport because of thunderstorms. The plane spent six hours on the tarmac in Rochester before it was permitted to resume its flight to the Twin Cities. During that time, the pilot apparently tried to allow the 47 passengers to disembark, but since Continental had no employees there, they had to stay put. Passengers reported that they were fed only a bag of pretzels, and that by the time the plane finally took off in the morning, the bathroom was out of order.
New York: 6 hours
More than 100 passengers on Sun Country Flight 242 from New York to Minneapolis were stuck on the ground for six hours at JFK on August 21, 2009, with the delay blamed on bad weather and runway work in Minneapolis. After three hours, passengers were offered food—at full price—from the galley, but there wasn’t enough to go around. Everyone received a refund for the flight.
Houston: 6 hours 49minutes
On December 10, 2008, Continental Airlines Flight 1010 from Houston to Newark endured a nearly seven-hour tarmac delay. Blame was laid on a snowstorm in Houston and a crew that had worked too long and needed to be replaced.
Houston: 7 hours 15minutes
That same Houston snowstorm caused another catastrophic tarmac delay, also on December 10, 2008. This one was a Continental Express ExpressJet, which sat on a tarmac for more than seven hours—quite a difference from the expected half-hour flight to Monroe, LA.
Detroit: 7 hours 30minutes
Cincinnati: 8 hours 3 minutes
Air-traffic gridlock was the reason given for the delay of Comair flight 6331 from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh on January 28, 2009. The flight sat on the tarmac for more than eight hours, making it the longest delay of that year.
Los Angeles: 9 hours
TACA Flight 670 from El Salvador was heading for Los Angeles on December 1, 2008, when dense fog at LAX forced it to land at nearby LA/Ontario Airport. The 132 passengers were trapped on board for nine hours, and the toilet failed to function for at least six hours. The airport claimed it was understaffed and could not handle immigration procedures for the flight. Including flight time, passengers spent more than 15 hours on the aircraft.
Atlanta: 10 hours
On January 16, 2008, Delta Flight 1201 from Atlanta to West Palm Beach was held on the tarmac for 10 hours because of weather and was repeatedly deiced. Passengers were denied food, water, or temperature controls and reported receiving misleading messages about prospective takeoff times.
New York: 11 hours
Happy Valentine’s Day: on February 14, 2007, more than 1,000 passengers on nine JetBlue flights were stuck on the tarmac at JFK for up to 11 hours. The ice storm responsible for the delay was nothing compared to the awful public relations storm for the airline.
Vancouver: 12 hours
In late December 2008, Toronto-bound Air Canada Flight 156 sat idle on the tarmac in Vancouver for more than 12 hours, a delay the airline blamed on weather, fuel, and crew issues. Food and water were rationed, the air quality was stale, and there were many complaints of misinformation. When the flight finally arrived in Toronto, it was nearly 24 hours behind schedule. Air Canada offered passengers $500 vouchers for their ordeal.