Passenger Rights: The Special Kind of Hell which is Tarmac Limbo

This post introduces three new categories to the Flight Chic blog:

AOG-Aircraft On Ground

For any readers who are not already involved in the industry, AOG situations are urgent must-address matters to get passengers off the ground and in the air.  By industry requirement, suppliers must provide 24/7 assistance to airlines and supply the necessary resources ensuring flights take off.  On the Flight Chic blog, AOG-Aircraft On Ground category posts will refer to matters which require immediate industry attention to protect passenger rights and improve the passenger experience.

Flight Checks (PASS or FAIL) are the categories for posts to the Flight Chic blog which evaluate the overall performance of the industry.  

As shown by the featured image, this post relates to a Flight Check FAIL.

Passengers on a plane, via Wikimedia Commons.

Those who travel often enough have likely suffered that exasperating state of limbo stuck on the tarmac, unable to take off, trapped in their seats onboard an aircraft stuck at the gate; perhaps on more than one occasion.  In the US, passengers trapped in these circumstances may have more rights than they realise.

There are nightmare stories in the news of passengers trapped for hours at a time, including a recent incident with CanJet airlines where 400 passengers were stuck on a Fredericton runway in freezing conditions for six hours when weather delays diverted their flights destined to Montreal and ultimately shut down Fredericton airport.

Sometimes factors outside the control of airlines, air traffic controllers and the airport authorities are to blame.   More often, manageable factors, like aircraft technical faults and traffic volume complications, cause the delays.  The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has established consumer protection rules, to ensure those circumstances are properly handled.

On January 15, 2014, the US DOT, enforced its passenger rights protection regulations by fining Qantas Airways $90,000 USD, for leaving passengers on Qantas flight 008 (out of Dallas/Fort Worth airport destined for Brisbane) stuck onboard the aircraft from 10:00 pm to 3:05 am.  The reason the US DOT gave for the fine was that Qantas had not made it clear to passengers that they had a right to leave the plane at any time if they chose to do so.

The aircraft initially pushed back at 10:41 pm, but because of mechanical alerts affecting the aircraft’s cockpit had to return to the gate a total of three times.  Passengers waited onboard as Qantas went through a series of technical trials to correct the fault, only to be told at 3:05 am that the flight was cancelled because of crew operating hour restrictions.

US DOT rules strictly prohibit airlines from allowing their aircraft to remain on the tarmac for over three hours for domestic flights and no longer than four hours for international flights without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane.

The US DOT explains:

DOT rules prohibit airlines from allowing their aircraft to remain on the tarmac for over 3 hours for domestic flights, and for over four hours for international flights without giving passengers an opportunity to deplane.   Qantas violated a provision of the DOT’s airline consumer protection rule requiring that if passengers on a delayed flight have the opportunity to leave the aircraft, the carrier must inform them that they can deplane. Announcements that passengers can leave the plane must come 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time and every 30 minutes afterward.


“Airlines may not leave passengers stranded indefinitely aboard an aircraft,” they stated in their official announcement on the fine to Qantas.  “At DOT, we are committed to protecting consumers’ rights when they travel, and will continue to take enforcement action when our rules are violated.”

For their part, Qantas explains that the aircraft doors were open, and that passengers were free to leave at any time, but they acknowledge that they did not make an official announcement.

They said in their statement to Flight Chic:

“During this delay Qantas made every effort to meet passengers’ needs on board the aircraft, keeping them fully informed about the situation and providing food and water.  Had any passenger asked to disembark, the crew would have allowed them to do so.”

Announcements to update the passengers on the progress on the technical faults failed to include a statement clearly advising passengers that they were free to deplane. The US DOT found against Qantas and issued the fine.

The only restrictions to these rights, as stipulated by the US DOT, are “safety, security, and ATC (Air Traffic Control) exceptions.”  Because passengers are not to know when these special restrictions apply, airlines have to make clear announcements to the status of the flight, including updates every thirty minutes and an announcement that passengers are free to leave when the doors are open at the gate.

While it is helpful to passengers, especially to the frequent flyer, to know their rights in the US, many of us travel internationally.  So what are the rules in other markets?  The answer is not as clear-cut as we might like.

ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) is responsible for harmonisation of the various international Consumer Protection policies, in keeping with the 12 October 1929 “Warsaw Convention” which established the principles of air carriers’ liabilities for damages to “passengers, baggage and goods, as well as for damaged caused by delay.”  Since 1929, discussions to “modernize and consolidate” the terms of the Warsaw Convention have been ongoing through a “Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air” adopted in Montreal on 28 May 1999 and known as the “Montreal Convention.”

Regrettably, in 2014, the policies consumer protection for delays still vary widely by country.  Even the most recent ICAO report on the Montreal Convention update of 2013, only provides details on the rights of passengers at the terminal–before boarding the aircraft.

I called ICAO Headquarters directly for comment and clarification.  My repeated calls requesting for copies of rules for passenger rights in ICAO member countries which specifically address delays once on board (as the US DOT regulation does) yielded no results.  I could find no rules published by ICAO to the public, which specifically address these rights.

What passenger rights the ICAO does publish vary widely from member country to member country.  The very specific rights provided by US DOT are only applicable when flying in the US.

In Australia, Qantas home base, the definitions of acceptable flight delays are left to the airline’s discretion.  

Regardless of where they are located, passengers would be wise to ask flight crew whether they are allowed to deplane when stuck at the gate, especially if the aircraft doors are open.  As in the case of the passengers stranded on Qantas Flight 008 in Dallas/Fort Worth, the answer may well be yes. 

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