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What Compensation Should I Expect for a Long Tarmac Delay?

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TPG reader Jesse sent me a message on Facebook to ask about what to expect after a canceled flight:

“I have United 1K status, and was recently stuck on a plane in Shanghai with no AC and no food for 7 hours before they finally canceled the flight. What do you think is reasonable compensation for this?”

Having your flight delayed or canceled is frustrating, but it’s downright brutal when it happens while you’re sitting on the tarmac. Fortunately, the Department of Transportation adopted rules on tarmac delays back in 2010 that started imposing fines on offending airlines, offering at least some relief to passengers.

China has seen a steady increase in the frequency and duration of tarmac delays during the past decade, and ranked dead last in punctuality in 2014 (according to US-based FlightStats). While China’s rules differ from those issued by the DOT, United’s own Lengthy Tarmac Delay Plan states that the airline will provide passengers with food and water after no more than two hours, and maintain comfortable cabin temperatures. United didn’t live up to its end of the bargain in Jesse’s case, but what sort of compensation you can expect for a lengthy delay depends on a few factors.

The most important question is why the flight was delayed in the first place. Airlines stipulate in their contracts of carriage that they aren’t liable for delays caused by events outside their control (like inclement weather). While the DOT’s rules still apply, airlines aren’t obligated to offer compensation for delays. However, they’re more likely to compensate passengers (especially those with elite status) if they’re at fault.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
You have rights in the event of tarmac delays … sometimes. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

There’s also a distinction between what’s “reasonable” and what you can reasonably expect. If the airline were responsible for a seven-hour tarmac delay and eventual cancellation, I think reimbursement for expenses (like meals and overnight accommodations) and a hefty travel voucher would be a good start. Something extra on top would be a nice touch, like your choice of miles or an addition travel voucher.

If the airline isn’t responsible, my guess is that many passengers will get nothing, but 1K status will probably earn you something like a $300-$500 travel voucher. Airlines want to keep their elite members happy, and I’ve had positive experiences getting compensation from American Airlines in similar circumstances thanks to my Executive Platinum status. Seven hours followed by a cancellation is pretty heinous, so just file a polite, eloquent complaint, and be clear about what you think is fair compensation. Hopefully United will agree.

One thing to keep in mind is that some credit cards offer trip cancellation and delay coverage. For example, a number of Chase cards (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card) offer trip delay reimbursement that can cover up to $500 of expenses (like meals and lodging) for travel that’s delayed by 12 hours or requires an overnight stay. Check the benefits of whichever card you used to pay for the flight and see if you’re eligible. That coverage usually applies in addition to whatever compensation you receive from the airline, so it’s worth looking into regardless of how you resolve the situation with United.

If you have any other questions, please tweet me @thepointsguy, message me on Facebook or send me an email at

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