January 6, 2016 9:13 pm
Updated: January 6, 2016 9:15 pm

Stuck on the tarmac for hours? Rules and tips for airline passengers

WATCH ABOVE: If your plane gets stuck on the tarmac what are your rights as a passenger? Gord sits down with Nikola Berube from the AMA to learn more.


We’ve all been there. Sitting in your seat, belt fastened, waiting for the airplane to take off. An overly-cheerful voice comes on the intercom, informing you the flight’s been delayed.

Patience wanes. Babies cry. Bladders fill. Connections are missed. Frustration grows.

After being parked on the tarmac for an hour or more, some people would just rather get off the plane. But, is that really an option? What are your rights as a passenger? What are the most common reasons flights are delayed anyway?

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“Bad weather is the number one cause right now,” said Nikola Berube, AMA travel director of sales and service. She explained that one delay at one airport can start a snowball effect on other flights and locations.

In December, a Calgary-bound plane made a scheduled stop in Hamilton to refuel. However, passengers said they spent eight hours stuck on the tarmac before they were let off. One person became so frustrated they called 911.

Sunwing said the plane could not taxi to the runway because snow and ice had accumulated. The company said deteriorating weather conditions made it hard for crews to attach a ramp to the aircraft.

An eight-hour wait on the tarmac?

“It’s not common but it does happen,” Berube said. “It can happen on any airline.”

What are the reasons for a long wait on the tarmac?

  • Poor weather conditions;
  • Mechanical issues;
  • De-icing line-ups;
  • Heavy air traffic for take off and landing;
  • No available gate to disembark;
  • No ground crew available to bring the plane in;
  • No customs services or officials available;
  • Medical emergency on-board;
  • Unruly traveller on-board.

READ MORE: Can you get compensation for a 3-day flight delay? 

Berube says the U.S. has Department of Transportation regulations that stipulate airlines must do everything in their ability to avoid lengthy tarmac delays. Unless there are poor weather conditions or it is unsafe to de-plane passengers, airlines can be subject to large fines.

So, why couldn’t passengers just get off the plane?

“The airplane and the airline is trying to hold passengers onboard because that plane could get cleared for take-off at any time. If you take a plane into the airport and everybody leaves, it’s very difficult to get everybody back on the plane,” Berube said.

When it comes to delays onboard the plane, Berube says most major Canadian airlines will:

  • Keep you updated throughout the delay, as much as possible;
  • Serve drinks and snacks when it is safe to do so;
  • Allow you to disembark to a departure lounge if the delay exceeds 90 minutes and if it is safe and practical to do so.

In 2009, Canada’s largest carriers (Air Canada, WestJet, Air Transat) agreed to the code and adjusted their tariffs to address flight and tarmac delays, cancellations, overbooking and lost or damaged baggage.

Are people offered food and water?

“There’s nothing regulated in Canada,” Berube said. “There are regulations in the U.S that do specify that you need to provide water and snacks if delayed four to six hours.”

All airlines have a tariff or Contract of Carriage – the terms you agree to when buying a ticket – that deal with how they deal with situations like delays, offering food and drink, and when (and what kind of) compensation is offered.

Most major carriers offer compensation when delays exceed six hours, but it all depends on the length of they delay and it varies by airline. Usually, it comes in the form of a food, hotel or flight voucher.

READ MORE: Flight delays: What are you entitled to as a passenger? 

So, what’s a traveller to do?

“The number one piece of advice is be patient. Be understanding. This isn’t being done to ruin your holiday, but really it’s being done to make sure the plane is ready to take off as soon as it’s cleared.”

You can lessen the impact of a delay by preparing:

  • Fill up your water bottle and bring snacks in your carry-on;
  • Take any medications with you in your carry-on bag;
  • Pack a good book and charge all your electronics;
  • Bring a portable charger;
  • Prepare for an emergency overnight stay, so bring any essentials with you on board!

If you’re not satisfied with how an airline handled a delay situation, you can submit a complaint in writing within 30 days to the company outlining your request for an explanation and/or compensation.

If you’re not satisfied with the company’s response, you can submit a formal complaint to the Canadian Transport Agency asking for help finding resolution.

© 2016 Shaw Media

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