Delayed flights: How long can you stay on the tarmac?

A row of American Airlines jets as seen from the 7th-floor roof of the hourly parking structure Friday morning, July 1, 2022 at the Charlotte Douglass International Airport.

A row of American Airlines jets as seen from the 7th-floor roof of the hourly parking structure Friday morning, July 1, 2022 at the Charlotte Douglass International Airport.

atrickett-wile@charlotteobserver.com

Tarmac delays can be one of the biggest headaches of air travel.

A tarmac delay happens when an airplane that is awaiting takeoff or has just landed and passengers do not have an opportunity to get off the plane, according to the US Department of Transportation.

At Charlotte-Douglas International Airport this year, there have been 678 tarmac times that have lasted more than one hour, 62 that have lasted more than two hours and one that has lasted more than three hours, according to data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics ..

“Tarmac delays occur for a variety of reasons: inclement weather, air traffic control issues, aircraft maintenance issues and security issues to name a few,” a spokesperson for Charlotte-Douglas International Airport told The Charlotte Observer in an email.

Whether you get stuck on a plane due to weather or mechanical issues, there are laws airlines have to follow to make sure you’re comfortable.

Here’s how long airlines can legally keep you on a tarmac, and what services they have to provide if they do.

How long can airlines keep you on the tarmac?

According to USDOT, airlines can keep you on a domestic flight for three hours before they are required to “begin to move the airplane to a location where passengers can safely get off.” On international flights, airlines are required to let passengers off after four hours.

These rules only apply to tarmac delays that occur at US airports. Exceptions to the time limits are allowed for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons, USDOT said.

If you decide to get off the plane during a tarmac delay, airlines are not required to let you back on the plane, according to USDOT. The flight could take off without you, meaning you could be responsible for booking another flight and contacting the airline about returning your checked luggage.

Are airlines required to serve food during a tarmac delay?

Airlines are required to provide you with a snack and water during the first two hours of a tarmac delay, but they do not have to serve full meals, according to USDOT.

The only instance where an airline is not required to hand out food and water is when they cannot be provided for safety or security reasons.

In addition to food and water, airlines are also required to provide working toilets, comfortable cabin temperatures and adequate medical attention if needed, USDOT said.

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Evan Moore is a service journalism reporter for the Charlotte Observer. He grew up in Denver, North Carolina, where he previously worked as a reporter for the Denver Citizen, and is a UNC Charlotte graduate.

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