Tarmac delay hall of shame: holiday edition

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Christopher Elliott

Anyone who thinks tarmac delays are dead was in for a little shock this week. Hundreds of flights were delayed in a series of powerful blizzards, and a few sat between the runway and the terminal for hours, waiting for the weather to clear.

The Transportation Department, which hasn’t fined a single airline for a tarmac delay since instituting its three-hour rule last spring, will almost certainly have to take some enforcement action this time. And, of course, there’s a big loophole: International flights remain exempt from the turnback rule.

More than two dozen international flights waited more than three hours from Monday to Wednesday to get to an open gate in New York, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The worst delay appears to be a Cathay Pacific flight from Bangkok that arrived Monday evening and got to a gate 12 hours later at 7:45 a.m. Tuesday.

Cathay admits a total of 1,100 passengers “suffered” being trapped in its planes for between four and 11 hours as they sat grounded on the snow-covered tarmac “because gates were not available at the airport for passengers to disembark,” according to one report. It apologized for the way it handled the incident.

Aeromexico’s Flight 404 landed at JFK from Mexico City more than two hours behind schedule, but passenger Cristobal Alex said it was six hours before he could walk off the plane. He told CNN,

We were running out of food and water and the pilot came on to say he had been arguing with the folks at the airport to at least let the police come on board to deliver some food and water. And I guess he lost that fight — nobody came on.

The DOT is already working on a tarmac delay rule for international flights.

Domestic airlines reportedly pushed the envelope on delays, but there were no reports of major hold-ups exceeding three hours. Delta Flight 1940 was scheduled to leave San Francisco at 11:40 a.m. Tuesday, for example, but did not take off until 3:31 p.m. because of weather in New York. The airline was technically in compliance with federal law, according to company officials. Passengers did not feel any happier.

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We won’t know the full extent of the delays until the Transportation Department releases December figures, and that won’t be for a few more months.

But here’s what we do know: Most of the big tarmac delays were on international carriers. Maybe that was a coincidence, but it probably wasn’t. Airports and airlines know they can keep those international flights waiting without any meaningful repercussions. That bothers me.

In the UK, which had its own little snow problem earlier in December, there’s discussion of a tough new law that would fine both airlines and airports. I doubt they’ll mess around by creating convenient loopholes for international carriers. But I like the idea of holding airports responsible for being unprepared during inevitable inclement weather.

My journalistic sixth sense tells me something is going on here, and if I had the resources, I’d start digging in New York. There are a few media organizations with the firepower to do a forensic analysis on the blizzard of 2010, and the resulting flight delays, and they all happen to be headquartered in New York.

Oh, who am I kidding?

(Photo: pocket dora/Flickr Creative Commons)

Photo of author

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes weekly columns for King Features Syndicate, USA Today, Forbes and the Washington Post. He also publishes Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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