By Susie Reese
You picked your seat perfectly — by the window, just after the extra legroom seats for savings and easy exit — for a five-hour flight from Las Vegas to Newark. Sure, the six a.m. departure was a little rough after a late-night dinner on The Strip, but you’ll get home with plenty of time for a good night’s rest before work the next day.
But then someone has a medical emergency during take-off. The pilot and flight attendants assess the situation and announce the plane will land in Denver before continuing on its original flight plan. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple with air travel.
My sister—Marie Reese, Flight Centre procurement leader—found this out on her last trip to Las Vegas, and what was to be a five-hour flight became a 13-hour ordeal of delays, cancellations, and bathroom breaks.
Get to know your fly rights
The moment the wheels hit pavement, Marie texted me, “Hey! Someone on board is having a medical emergency. We landed in Denver.”
(My mom is an eighth grade English teacher, so our texts are in full and complete sentences.)
I immediately jumped onto my computer to check Marie’s flight, finding the new landing time while the medical staff rushed onto the aircraft as soon as it reached the gate.
“The person was off the plane within a minute, possibly even less,” recounts Marie. “The staff was ready.”
Then the waiting game started. When would the plane continue on its original course? At these times, it’s good to know your rights, as declared by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Better known as the “Airline Passenger Bill of Rights,” fly rights or airline passenger protections help to limit lengthy tarmac delays, disclose hidden fees, and make sure passengers are treated “fairly.”
During a diverted flight, airline passengers have the certain rights to ensure a safe and healthy experience, and Marie found many of these rights to be necessities.
Passenger Right: Airlines must “promptly notify consumers of delays of over 30 minutes, as well as cancellations and diversions. This notification must take place in the boarding gate area, on a carrier’s telephone reservation system and on its website.” — DOT, “U.S. Department of Transportation Expands Airline Passenger Protections”
The first of many conversations with the pilot began almost immediately after the person in question was taken off the plane. The aircraft needed to wait for its medical supplies to be restocked and paperwork to be filled out, and the pilot informed the passengers of the issue and asked them not to disembark if possible.
Passengers then were allowed to get up and move about the cabin, but, this proved difficult for Marie, who chose a window seat. She waited and performed the exercises provided in the pouch safety card, and around the first-hour mark, the flight attendants came through with water, as per another passenger right.
Passenger Right: “On both domestic and international flights, U.S. airlines must provide passengers with food and water no later than two hours after the tarmac delay begins.”— DOT, “Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel”
Eventually, the pilot came back onto the intercom and asked all passengers to take their seats as the plane had been cleared to taxi. Marie texted me her love and turned off her cell phone for the flight.
Over the (three-hour) limit
A little less than an hour later, I decided to check on Marie’s flight status and went to the airline’s website. She had yet to take off, and her plane, which was schedule to land at two, was now scheduled to land after four. I sent her a quick text to ask if she had taken off, and less than 30 minutes later, I received a reply, “Making us get off.”
Passenger Right: “Some flights are delayed on the airport ‘tarmac’ before taking off or after landing. DOT rules prohibit most U.S. airlines from allowing a domestic flight to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours” there are safety and security concerns for deplaning passengers or air traffic control advises the action would significantly disrupt airport operations. — DOT, “Fly Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel
Contrary to her text, Marie was—at first—not required to get off the plane, but passengers were allowed to deplane and walk around the gate, use the bathroom, or grab food at the terminal. Unfortunately, passengers did not return to the plane in a timely fashion, and due to a “technological glitch,” the pilot informed, the flight was cancelled. This allowed the second leg of the flight (from Newark to Denver, ironically) to take off from Newark with the correct flight number.
Despite initial confusion about the cancellation, the airline was hard at work, creating a new flight number for Marie’s leg of the journey and issuing new tickets to the passengers.
Notes Marie, “The pilot announced that no, the flight crew were not over time and would be allowed to fly us safely and within FAA regulations to Newark.”
There were a few bumps and obstacles of course. “The airline staff broke us into two lines—those who were using Newark as a hub and those who were finishing their journey in Newark.”
At times, it became quite confusing with some passengers getting on the wrong line and the flight attendants allowing passengers to board before all tickets were issued, “which caused some passengers to become hostile, fearing they would not be able to put their carry-ons in the overhead bins or get on the flight at all,” recounts Marie.
Just after three p.m. EST—an hour after her original flight was to land and more than four hours after the plane landed in Denver—the flight once more took to the skies.
Is Passenger Bill of Rights a good thing?
After thousands of passengers were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2010, the 2009 Passenger Bill of Rights was amended to include the right to deplane after three hours on domestic flights and after four hours for international flights. If an airline does not comply, it can be fined heavily, but are the stiff fines worth it? (Southwest holds the record at $1.6 million.)
A 2013 Dartmouth study “Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice” found that per minute saved in tarmac delays, three minutes of delays are created due to cancellations. Marie’s flight proves this point. Her flight was cancelled, the entire plane was forced to disembark before finally taking off hours later. If such a law didn’t exist, Marie would have been back in the air just over three hours after landing and landed in New Jersey just after four p.m., not seven p.m.
“Absolutely,” Marie says without hesitation. “The problem wasn’t with the three-hour time limit. The pilot told us we had to wait for medical supplies, then gas, then paperwork, and then even more paperwork. They just could not get us in the air fast enough. Airlines need to work on their efficiency in these situations.”
In October 2015 alone, more than 800 flights were diverted in the U.S., according to the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report.
Wonders Marie, “If this is normal occurrence, why don’t airlines have a better procedure for this type of situation?”