Skip to content

3 things to know when you are facing a prolonged flight delay

Sept. 30, 2021
6 min read
American Airlines planes at the gate in Phoenix airport
This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Last week, my family and I were flying to New York City to witness the reopening of Broadway and capture the magic of the musical "Wicked," in person. Our flight was on time and full, so we decided to get on the plane early in the boarding process to ensure we had enough overhead bin space for our carry-on baggage.

For more TPG news delivered each morning to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Everything seemed peachy. Our plan of landing at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) around dinnertime and making it into Manhattan for a nice meal was still on.

Until it wasn't.

Our flight was delayed 30 minutes. Then an hour. Then another hour. All in all, we waited five hours on the plane before we finally departed from Miami and arrived past midnight in New York City — all due to bad weather at both airports.

The delay was ruinous for our evening plans. And, if not for my buoyant daughter who wanted to stick it out rather than deplane, we would have canceled our trip and gone home.

Delays are unfortunately part of the flying experience. But you, the passenger, have rights by virtue of the Department of Transportation's tarmac delay rule.

Here are three things you should keep in mind about the DOT's tarmac delay rule next time you're faced with a prolonged flight delay.

Related: Here’s what to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

Sign up for our daily newsletter

You have the right to deplane

(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

Under the DOT's tarmac delay rule, for flights landing or departing from a U.S. airport, airlines are required to return to the gate (from the tarmac) or move the plane to a location where passengers can safely deplane if there are long delays. For domestic flights, they can't keep you on the plane for more than three hours. It's a four-hour rule for international flights. That means they need to get you back to the gate in time to get off before three or four hours elapse.

Related: Here's what to ask for when things go wrong on your flight

The airline must offer you the opportunity to deplane during a tarmac delay. Just note, if you decide to get off, the airline is not required to allow you back on the airplane. And if you checked bags and plan on disembarking, you're out of luck as the airline will usually not open the cargo hold and offload your luggage.

After about three long hours waiting for takeoff, the crew on our flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport offered passengers a chance to deplane and return. Many passengers stood up and sped through the aisle and out the plane door to purchase something to eat or drink. Those passengers included my wife, who left the plane to pick up food. I stayed behind and ended up sitting in the same seat for five hours before we finally took off.

Related: United just got a big fine for tarmac delays

Passengers were allowed to reenter the plane by again showing boarding passes to a gate agent.

Related: The one major social distancing challenge I’d like to see airlines fix

Airlines are required to provide you with snacks and water

(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

No, you won't get a first-class meal (not even in first class) simply because you're undergoing a lengthy delay. However, airlines are required to provide delayed passengers with a snack, such as a pack of pretzels, and drinking water no later than two hours after the aircraft leaves the gate (in the case of a departure) or touches down (in the case of an arrival).

The only scenario in which an airline is not required to pass out food and water to all passengers during an extended tarmac delay is when the pilot deems that food and water service cannot be provided due to safety or security concerns. For example, if an airplane is holding on an active runway, it may be prudent of the flight attendants to hold off on handing out food and water to passengers until it's safe to do so.

In addition, airlines must offer working lavatories, comfortable cabin temperature, and medical attention, if needed. Our plane was starting to feel uncomfortably warm from sitting idle for hours, so I politely asked the flight attendant if they could make the cabin a bit cooler and she lowered the temperature.

Related: Why do some airlines keep their cabins too warm to sleep in?

You have the right to be updated on the status of your flight

(Photo courtesy of United Airlines)

Being kept in the dark on your flight status while on a long, drawn-out delay is a frustrating ordeal for anyone. The DOT's tarmac delay rule says that airlines must provide passengers with notifications regarding the status of the delay every 30 minutes, including the reasons for the tarmac delay.

In my recent experience, this part of the DOT tarmac delay rule definitely was not enforced. With bad weather the culprit of our five-hour delay on the ground, our flight captain was communicative initially. But, that ended and silence then ensued from the cabin crew for several hours. Groaning from passengers proliferated.

You may politely ask the cabin crew for more frequent updates on your flight status if they've gone unusually long without providing one. Note the keyword: politely.

Related: When should you speak up about a flight delay?

Bottom line

Tarmac delays are unwished-for events and loathed by both passengers and cabin crew. However, it is an airline's responsibility to ensure that, when a tarmac delay does occur, passengers are comfortable while they wait onboard the aircraft and are given an opportunity to disembark once it's safe to do so.

While our extended flight delay put a damper on dinner in NYC the first night, ultimately we made it to see "Wicked" on Broadway, and each of us received compensation from the airline — in the form of miles and flight credit to use for an imminent return to see another Broadway show in the near future.

If you travel often, you'll inevitably find yourself on one of these long-lasting tarmac delays. But it pays to know DOT's tarmac delay rule and recognize the airline's responsibility to you, the passenger.

And don't forget to ask for compensation. While the airlines aren't entitled to give you any, it never hurts to ask ... nicely.

Featured image by (Photo by Markus Mainka / Shutterstock.com)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023