From JetBlue coming under fire for its outrageous 7-hour flight delay, to the 150 turtles that were responsible for lengthy holdup at the JFK airport for crossing the runway, to some irate Chinese passengers assaulting the crew after being stuck on the airplane too long, we are all familiar about tarmac delays and how tormenting they can be for the passengers. So why do these tarmac delays happen in the first place? From bad weather to congestion of airspace, there could be several reasons for these infamous holdups. Of course there is nothing wrong in making the passengers wait for a while once they board the plane, but if the wait exceeds 3 or 4 hours, it can aggravate things for them. Therefore, sticking to their customer service commitment, today almost every airline has a contingency plan to meet customers’ essential needs during these lengthy delays.

The Contingency Plan:

The plan usually entails the following thing:

  • Following gate departure or flight touch-down, if a flight has been put to tarmac delay, adequate food and water must be provided after every two hours except when (i) The pilot-in-command finds security related hazards for airplane to leave its position to deplane passengers; or (ii) In order to deplane passengers, air traffic control advises the pilot-in-command that going back to the gate or another debarkation point elsewhere might disrupt airport operations significantly.
  • Making sure each restroom is fully functional
  • In case there are unanticipated emergencies, medical aid must be ready to step in
  • It is vital that passengers experiencing tarmac delay are informed every 30 minutes regarding the flight delay status. This includes notifying possible reasons for the delay, if known.
  • After every 30 minutes, reporting the passengers on board with the option of deplaning, if such an opportunity exists.

States’ Tarmac Delay Rule:

These are the things included in a typical contingency plan of all airlines worldwide, just in case a tarmac delay happens. They make sure that passengers get appropriate food, restroom facilities and even medical assistance during that time. However, it can only put passengers at ease for some time and isn’t just enough. That is the very reason why U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has come up with tarmac delay rule whereby any airline making the passengers wait for more than three hours would be penalized with a fine of as much as $27,500 per passenger. According to US Passenger Bill of Rights, which has been designed to protect airline passengers from lengthy tarmac delays, airplanes must return to the gate after a three-hour ground delay to give passengers the option to deplane otherwise a hefty fine would be levied on that airline. Several renowned airlines have also been hit with this fine. The rule is now also applicable to international flights, whether the flight is scheduled or public chartered by foreign carriers. Tarmac delay limit has been set to standard delay of 3 hours on domestic flights and a standard of 4 hours for the international flights by the States’ Department of Transportation (DOT). “Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly, and this new rule will require airlines to respect the rights of their customers”, US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. The US tarmac delay rule has been effective so far, as research shows that it drastically reduced such waits by 98 percent, which legitimately establishes the success of this rule.

Middle Eastern Airlines Going Cavalier:

Gulf Air has been among the top three airlines to for on-time punctuality but that does not mean that Middle Eastern passengers have been safe from the dreaded tarmac delays. Unlike the States, there is no rule to let the passenger egress once the wait becomes unbearable. Now how can we forget when passengers on Etihad flight, EY17 bound for London, were stranded on the tarmac for more than an hour while the temperature inside the cabin kept on rising. Several passengers on board wrote to The National, UAE, complaining about the heat that had built up inside the plane. Unable to cope with the scorching heat, children were stripped off and rubbed with cold towels. “It was extremely uncomfortable. Most people expect to tolerate some inconvenience when travelling but this was beyond tolerable”, told a passenger on the plane. “Several exhausted passengers came off in wheelchairs,” said one passenger. “If technical problems are necessary, passengers shouldn’t be forced to wait on a plane without proper air conditioning while repairs are undertaken”, said another passenger.

On another occasion, due to a technical problem, 300 passengers on an India-bound Saudia flight at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam got stranded for more than 17 hours. Not to mention the lack of food, water and attention that they had to put up with.

Yet, you’d be wrong to think that it’s only the Middle Eastern airlines that fail to get it right and the grass is greener everywhere else. Tarmac delays frequently happen all around the world. Same used to be the case with the flights in the US. A first-hand account of the plight of one of such passengers, who was stuck at ExpressJet plane for 9.5 hours begins like this, “Now I know what it’s like to be in hell”. Where he furthers his story like this, “Being stuck on that plane for 9 1/2 hours – 7 hours on the ground – was no picnic. The captain was not communicating with us at all, and what she did tell us seemed like stalling. Shouldn’t we get some kind of compensation out of this mess or is this acceptable?”

Earlier in 2012, in China, some 20 angry passengers resorted to extreme measures when they started dashing towards the runway at Shanghai’s main international airport and came within 200 metres of an oncoming plane from the UAE, which was a reaction to being stranded on a plane delayed for 16 hours.

And let’s not forget an incident that shook the newsrooms when 47 passengers were stranded overnight on the tarmac in Rochester, Minnesota. The pilot continually asked for permission to disembark the passengers but airline dispatchers refused to comply just because TSA officials had left for the day, fully ignoring the fact that it could jeopardize passengers by exposing them to the sterile area.

Ramifications of Flight Delays:

Studies reveal that flight delays are directly related to increased costs and lost demand and can even affect airline’s market share too. The costs include the expenses of crew, fuel and maintenance. To take an example, only recently, the domestic flight delays cost US economy a whopping $32.9 billion.

Whether the wait is for one or several hours, lengthy taxiway delays affect both the airlines and the passengers. Passengers do care a lot about airlines’ on-time performance. So, they might as well think about switching to a better service if there are any delays.

Flight Improvement Trending Worldwide (OTP Reports, 2013):

According to FlightStats On-time Performance Report, February 2013, the major international carriers, (SA) South African, (GF) Gulf Air, and (JL) Japan Airlines, delivered over 90% of their flights on time. However, the top ten performing Global airlines and their on-time percentages in February were South African 94.71%, Gulf Air 90.77%, Japan Airlines 90.24%, Air New Zealand 89.68%, Singapore Airlines 87.70%, Air Europa 87.27%, KLM 86.81%, Delta 86.35%, Saudi Arabian 86.28% and ANA 85.51%.

North American airlines, on average, delivered 79.04% of their flights to the arrival gate within 15 minutes of schedule in February compared with 79.21% in January. The OTP for the European Airlines was 81.30% in February, up from 80.67% in January. And last but not the least, the OTP for the Asian Airlines was 68.18% in February.

Phasing out Flight Delays:

The bottom-line is that tarmac delays can be distressing for both the airlines and the passengers. In States, it’s the fear of strict penalties on tarmac delays that prevents airlines from shrugging off passengers’ concerns and has also led to operational excellence and enhanced customer experience. Therefore, it would be better to either uproot the problems that cause such delays or to follow the suit by creating some firm rules.