Tarmac Delays and Airline Passenger Rights

Federal rules limit tarmac delay times and spell out airlines' obligations to passengers.

By , J.D. University of San Francisco School of Law
Updated by Amy Loftsgordon, Attorney University of Denver Sturm College of Law
Updated 5/13/2024

Airline passengers who haven't experienced it firsthand have heard the horror stories. A plane has taxied away from the gate, but hasn't been cleared for takeoff—or the aircraft has landed but hasn't yet reached the terminal—and bad weather, a mechanical issue, or some arcane airline regulation keeps the flight parked on the tarmac for hours. These delays often involve shortages of food, water, fresh air, and adequate toilet facilities, not to mention the dwindling patience of the passengers and flight crew.

Rules from the U.S. Department of Transportation promise some relief from tarmac delays and seek to protect passengers' rights. The regulations set limits on the amount of time airlines can keep passengers on board a delayed domestic flight, and spell out what airlines must provide within two hours of a tarmac delay to make passengers as comfortable as possible. Hefty fines are imposed on airlines who don't comply.

Read on to learn more about tarmac delays and the rules.

Tarmac Delays

Lengthy tarmac delay incidents seem to have peaked in the summer of 2009 (June through August), when over 500 delays of at least three hours were reported, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. One incident, in particular, got a lot of media attention: in August 2009, 47 passengers spent almost six hours, which is longer than it usually takes to fly across the continental U.S., sitting onboard a plane that was parked on the tarmac of Rochester International Airport in Minnesota.

Rules Protect Airline Passengers

U.S. Department of Transportation regulations on tarmac delays went into effect in late April 2010. So, how do the rules protect air passengers? Here are some highlights:

  • Airlines must return planes to the gate and let passengers off any time a flight is sitting on the tarmac for three hours (domestic flights).
  • Airlines must provide passengers with adequate food and water within the first two hours of any tarmac delay.
  • Adequate toilet facilities must be maintained and made available to passengers during the delay.
  • Airlines must post and maintain tarmac delay contingency plans on their websites.

Not surprisingly, there are exceptions to these requirements. Most notably, the three-hour deplaning rule won't be enforced when passenger safety and security are at risk, or if the plane's return to the gate would cause a major disruption of airport operations.

Punishment for Airlines Who Violate the Tarmac Delay Rules

Airlines that defy the tarmac delay rules can be fined up to $27,500 for each passenger on board the affected flight. With commercial jets routinely carrying over 200 passengers these days, failure to follow the tarmac delay rules could cost an airline more than $5 million in fines for a single flight. The potential for that kind of financial hit is probably enough to get the attention of even the largest airline.

Critics of the tarmac delay rules warn that airlines are likely to cancel flights rather than risk incurring large fines resulting from delays. There is also the fear that airlines will pass on to consumers (via higher ticket prices) any increased costs, such as fines or higher operating expenses, resulting from the rules.

Proponents of the regulations say it's high time air travelers are treated less like cargo and more like people and that airlines stop over-scheduling flights, especially on routes that are chronically delayed.

Tarmac Delays—Take Action

If you were on board a flight that got stranded on the tarmac, and you think the airline didn't live up to its obligations under the tarmac delay rules, make your voice heard. Call the airline or check their website for information on filing a formal complaint.

To learn more about the federal tarmac delay rules, check out these FAQs on the U.S. Department of Transportation's official website.

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