There are few things worse than being trapped inside a plane while it sits on the tarmac for hours. Travelers leaving Abu Dhabi were reminded of that fact this past weekend when a fully boarded Etihad Airlines flight 183 was held on the ground for 12 hours due to fog.
According to reports, passengers were given only one meal during what became a 28-hour trip to San Francisco, and had to deal with clogged toilets along the way—not exactly the best start to a new year.
The good news is that tarmac horror stories like this one have become increasingly rare for American air travelers. But that wasn’t always the case. In February 2007, more than 1,000 passengers were stranded on JetBlue flights out of John F. Kennedy International Airport for almost 11 hours. One year later, a Delta flight from Atlanta to West Palm Beach kept passengers trapped on the runway for 10 hours.
Those incidents were especially egregious examples of traveler mistreatment, but they were indicative of a larger trend. Between May 2009 and April 2010, a whopping 693 boarded flights sat for more than three hours on U.S. tarmacs. For a while, being trapped in a plane for hours before takeoff became, if not common, at least something like business as usual. Relatives wouldn’t be shocked to hear you spent a few hundred minutes stuck in preflight purgatory on the way to a holiday visit.
And then, in a flash, it all changed. From May 2010 through April 2011, the Department of Transportation recorded 20 total tarmac delays—a 97% drop from the previous year. In the twelve months from November 2013 to October 2014, there were just 47 such delays. The frequent flyer’s worst nightmare had suddenly come to an end.
What happened? The reason’s as simple as could be: The federal government decided to start cracking down on tarmac waits. In August 2010, the Department of Transportation imposed new rules that would fine airlines as much as $27,500 per passenger if a domestic flight sat for more than three hours on the tarmac without travelers being able to voluntarily leave the aircraft. The regulation was later extended to include international flights that stay on the tarmac for over four hours.
Airlines quickly learned the DOT wasn’t kidding about its new policy. When American Eagle Airlines delayed 15 flights for more than three-hours in May of the following year, the department slapped the company with a $900,000 fine. A plane with as many passengers as Etihad’s flight 183 could owe millions of dollars for a sufficiently extensive delay. With that kind of money on the line, companies realized it wasn’t in their interest to keep passengers cooped up for too long.
While some at the time were worried the new rules would lead to increased flight cancellations and ultimately hurt air travelers, their fears appear to have been unwarranted. Cancelled flights went up only slightly, and according to experts, the benefits of the regulations to passengers outweigh the costs. Flights are cancelled once in a while, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, but the DOT’s rules “definitely prevented a lot of suffering.”
Instead of cancelling masses of trips, Hobica has seen airlines become more adept at allowing passengers to leave the plane if they choose while letting the remaining travelers stay on board. Airports now have busses equipped with stairs to evacuate fed-up customers from a long tarmac wait, and some have even adopted a dedicated gate for emergency deplanings.
“The rules have definitely reduced the number of tarmac delays all around,” Hobica says. But that doesn’t mean we’re safe all the time. The DOT’s rules only apply on American soil. Outside the country, flyer beware.