Long Tarmac Delays: Survival Tips

George Hobica, March 25, 2009
Fares from Washington DC:

    "I am terrified that I'll get stuck on the tarmac for hours.  I heard recently about a 10 hour situation with one of the airlines.  Is there a policy regarding holding passengers hostage like this?"

    "I only fly about once a year, but each time I make plane reservations I have this 'panic attack' residing in the back of my mind."
    "I am a paraplegic.  I CAN'T use the bathroom on a plane.  What happens if my plane is stuck on the tarmac for hours?  Do I have any recourse in such a situation?"

    We get a lot of emails here at Airfarewatchdog.com, and lately, more than a few concerned travelers have been expressing extreme anxiety about the possibility of being trapped on a plane during a tarmac delay.  We've all heard the horror stories about these epic sagas of claustrophobic detention and deprivation... no water, no food, over-flowing toilets in the lavatories devoid of toilet paper and soap, and worst of all, with no escape.  

    We've found that preparation is the best way to deal with any anxiety concerning this unpleasant possibility. With just a few items in your carry-on and some strategic behavior on your part, you'll be ready for a long stay in your seat.  Yes, many airlines have contingency plans and policies posted on their websites, but we must point out that the language gives many of them a lot of wiggle room.  For example, one of them promises you a Nutri-Grain bar (talk about strategic product placement!) in case of a tarmac delay, with no mention of a maximum time limit spent on the ground.  

    Some Suggested Strategies

    • Pack an extra meal.  If it's an afternoon flight, pack dinner.  If it's an early morning flight, pack lunch.  Non-perishable extra snacks are a wise addition to your carry-on. You may want to share with your starving, unprepared seatmates.  Invest in a large bottle of water post-security to bring with you on the plane.  If you're economizing, bring an empty plastic bottle and fill it up in the terminal (again, post-security!).
    • Monitor the weather.  Check out the forecasts for your departure city, your arrival city and what the heck, for the entire country.  Nowadays, a snowstorm at JFK can cause delays all over the country.
    • Fully charge your cell phone and other electronics.  You may need to make some calls and let folks know where you are, but keep the conversations brief as a courtesy to your fellow passengers. (Long gab fests about nothing are sure to make everyone around you even crankier during a delay.)  As for your other electronic devices such as portable DVD players and mobile phones, if they're fully-charged, they'll provide hours of much needed distraction and entertainment.
    • Pack headphones.  Do we really even need explain why you'll want these?!  The noise-canceling type, such as those made by Bose, are our personal favorites.
    • Bring something to do or read.  A paperback, knitting, crosswords, whatever. As we said before, distractions will be crucial!
    • Time your restroom visits.  Right before you get on the plane is a must, as well as shortly before you land (it could be your last chance for quite awhile).  Also, if you are stuck on the tarmac and the crew has allowed movement about the cabin, go before things get too messy in the lavs.  After that, limit your liquid intake and cross your legs. (A small bottle of Purell and some travel-sized packets of Wet-Naps would probably be a great addition to your carry-on.)
    • Everything goes double for your kids!  Pack extra everything that could contribute to their comfort and well-being. It's better for them, better for you and better for everyone around you.
    • Print out the following and have it in your carry-on:  the airline's tarmac delay policy, its missed connection policy, its reservation number in case you miss a connection and need to re-book. You can find these items on line, sometimes in the airline's contract of carriage.

    Not All Airlines Delay Policies Are Alike

    We were actually quite surprised by the variations in airline policies for dealing with tarmac delays.   Allegiant doesn't even mention the possibility of this occurring in their contract of carriage, let alone what they would do if it happened to a flight you were on.  When we tried to contact them regarding this, they referred us back to their contract of carriage on their website.  When we pointed out there was no mention of tarmac delays in their contract, the silence was deafening.  On the other hand, both JetBlue and Northwest have extensive and informative delay policies posted on their websites and, along with United, provide a compensation timeline, depending on the length of the delay.  Most other airlines make no mention of any sort of compensation on their websites.  We've compiled a quick summarization chart so that you can peruse and compare the various policies for some of the major domestic airlines. See chart.

    Worst Case Scenarios

    The website FlyersRights.org, which is run by a coalition lobbying for legislation to establish an industry-wide passengers' bill of rights for long tarmac delays and other indignities, has a page of phone numbers and contacts for the press, Congress, and governmental agencies. If you find yourself trapped on a plane for hours with no end in sight, call for help and bring attention to your particular situation.  No airline wants to be seen in this kind of negative spotlight or to receive the bad publicity it could entail.  This could be the most effective way of getting you and your fellow passengers out of your plane, into the terminal and onward to sweet freedom!  Passengers have sued airlines for being held against their will, and have revolted after delays became intolerable, forcing the airline to go back to the gate. We don't recommend getting rowdy, however, because that could result in legal proceedings of a different nature.