Stranded on the Tarmac? Here's What You Need to Know

By Ada Kozłowska | Last updated on

stranded on tarmac

I’ll never forget my first time on a plane. I could barely contain my excitement as the wheels started rolling and we backed out from the gate. Let’s gooooooo!!! I thought. Up in the air!!!

But since it was my first time flying, I didn’t know that the plane would take a bit longer to make it up in the air. As we sat on the tarmac for what felt like forever, my impatience grew exponentially. That’s when I found out that all planes wait in line to take off – and that the timing is already built into the itinerary. Even still, I was sure we were going to arrive late and that I would miss my connecting flight.

My plane didn’t arrive late that day, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling a bit nervous every time a plane I’m on sits for awhile on the tarmac. I realise now that the impatience I felt on my first flight has never really gone away, thanks to feeling a lack of knowledge and lack of control.

As you sit on the tarmac, there’s no telling how long it could take for the plane to take off. Even experienced air travellers suffer this anxiety. You can see how many planes are ahead of you if you have a good view, but that doesn’t tell you how long it may take to get to the front of the line. And the pilots or flight attendants rarely keep you informed of how much time is left – and if that time is the same as what was planned for. So we sit and we wait and we hope. There’s little else we can do, right?

The Laws on Tarmac Delays

When it comes to tarmac delays, there’s a limit between what’s normal and what constitutes a true delay. Since most air travellers have grown accustomed to some sort of a wait, the feeling that it could be a delay creeps up slowly until all of a sudden you think, is this plane ever going to take off? Are we going to have to deplane?

That’s why it’s important to take note of the time when the plane doors are closed. Then, if the wait feels like it’s getting a bit longer than normal, you can measure how much time you’ve been sitting on the tarmac. Believe it or not, there is something you can do if that wait is too long.

European Tarmac Delay Laws

European tarmac delay laws vary for better and for worse. For better, they are eligible for compensation just the same way a flight delay is eligible for compensation in Europe. For worse, they don’t require giving passengers the option to deplane until the tarmac delay reaches 5 hours. But if the tarmac delay is one hour or more, it is mandatory that the plane provide air conditioning, toilets and water.

U.S. Tarmac Delay Laws

According to U.S. laws on tarmac delays, any delay of two hours or more requires special attention. Here’s a breakdown from the The U.S. Department of Transportation:

  • After a tarmac delay of two hours, passengers must be provided with food, water, operational lavatories, and medical care (medical care only if needed).
  • After a tarmac delay of three hours in the U.S., passengers must be given the option to deplane.
  • After a tarmac delay of four hours outside of the U.S., passengers must be given the option to deplane.

There are, however, exceptions to these rules. The rules above do not apply in the following circumstances:

  • If the pilot determines there is a reason to keep passengers on the plane, pertaining to safety or security
  • If air traffic control advises that taxiing to a place where passengers can deplane would significantly disrupt airport operations

What to Do If You’re Stranded on the Tarmac (Or Have to Deplane)

If you’re stranded on the tarmac, keep the timing in mind. Once the delay hits 1-2 hours (depending on whether you’re on a U.S. or European flight), you should know what air passenger rights you have. Are the flight attendants offering water? Are you being kept informed of the situation? If the answer to these questions is no, talk to the flight attendants and (kindly) remind them of your rights.

If the tarmac delay extends beyond a few hours and you’re not given the option to deplane, then the airline is not complying with the law. (Review the bullet points above to see which timeframe applies to your flight. You could also review your airline’s contract of carriage for an update on their policy.) At that point, the airline can only keep you on the plane if it’s for safety reasons or to prevent a disruption of airport services.

If you end up in a situation in which the airline is not compliant with the law, file a complaint:

  1. Contact the airline via mail or email to register your complaint
  2. The airline has 60 days to respond to you
  3. If the airline doesn’t respond – or if you’re not happy with their response, you can then register a complaint with The Department of Transportation

It may not be as easy as going through AirHelp to file a claim for compensation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for your rights when delayed on the tarmac! Air passenger rights are changing all the time and your diligence can impact that in a big way!

Image Credit: Jody Claborn

Flight delays happen, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept them. You may be entitled to as much as €600 in compensation if your flight was delayed, cancelled or overbooked within the last five years.