Airlines Can Keep Passengers Prisoner 3 Hours

airline-delaysThe federal government is placing limits on the ability of airlines to mistreat customers. They don’t go nearly far enough.

U.S. airlines could face stiff fines for stranding passengers aboard grounded planes for more than three hours, according to a regulation that officials said on Monday was aimed at upholding passenger rights. The Transportation Department initiative tries to address public and government frustration with lengthy runway delays, especially those that leave passengers without food, water or adequate bathroom facilities. “Airline passengers have rights, and these new rules will require airlines to live up to their obligation to treat their customers fairly,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters.

For the first time, the government will require airlines to let passengers get off planes that have been at a gate or on a taxiway waiting to take off or get access to a terminal. Exceeding the three-hour limit could result in fines of up to $27,000 per passenger, the Transportation Department said. Airlines also would have to ensure that passengers get food, water and adequate bathroom facilities during long delays.


The decision to let passengers off planes rests with the captain, who could exceed the three-hour limit because of security or safety concerns. Crews could also keep people aboard if letting them off would disrupt air traffic.

The regulation would take effect just at the start of the spring and summer travel season, the worst for delays.

Major airlines, through their trade association, said they would comply even though they say it will lead to more canceled flights and more passenger inconvenience. “The requirement of having planes return to the gates within a three-hour window or face significant fines is inconsistent with our goal of completing as many flights as possible,” said Jim May, CEO of the Air Transport Association.

As regular readers know, my default position on federal regulation is skepticism.  In most cases, though, customers who are unhappy with the way a business is treating them are free to walk away.  That’s quite literally not the case here.

It’s bad enough when airlines fail to deliver on their contract to get passengers from point A to point B by a certain time.  In many cases, the customer would not have agreed to the contract if they’d known that they would be delayed several hours.   They’d have chosen to drive, instead.  Or gone with a more competent carrier.  Or left earlier.   Something.   By the time passengers find out they’re delayed, they’re powerless to chose other alternatives.

Sometimes, things happen.  Tickets are sold months in advance and the weather can’t be predicted with accuracy.   And whole airports — in rare cases, all the airports in  sections of the country — sometimes get shut down through no fault of the carriers.     I get that.

But why are airlines entitled to hold passengers prisoner?

More often than not, they know damned well that they aren’t taking off on time — or any time soon — when they start boarding.   But even if they don’t, customers should have a right to get off the plane and get their money back once it becomes clear that the airline isn’t going to be able to deliver on their contract.   What other business is allowed to simply trap customers for hours on end?

And who cares about the airlines’ “goal” of “completing as many flights as possible”?  The goal that matters is that of the customers, not the business.   Again, what other business is allowed to do this?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ugh says:

    The decision to let passengers off planes rests with the captain, who could exceed the three-hour limit because of security or safety concerns. Crews could also keep people aboard if letting them off would disrupt air traffic.

    that’s a fairly large loophole, in fact, isn’t “disrupt air traffic” pretty much a catchall? It’s not like Airlines are keeping passengers on planes currently for hours on end just for kicks. Part of the problem is that the main airports are booked solid, with pretty much constant takeoffs and landings from the moment they open until the moment they close, with all gate slots booked, such that even if the airline wanted to return passengers to the gate, they can’t because there is already a plane there.

    Anyway, this sounds good but my prediction is that any fines levied under these regs will be few and far between.

  2. JKB says:

    Well, when those very same regulations support the bad service by the airlines, what can you do? If a passenger dares assert his right to human dignity, he will be arrested, imprisoned and possibly banned from airplanes for life by that very same government who now proclaims to support him with a three hour detention limit.

    Even a boycott wouldn’t work because even if “Skip the pain, Skip the plane” was successful, the government would make up the airline losses with forceable extracted taxes.

  3. Gerry W. says:

    I had worked for an airline in California many years ago. The problem when you have a mechanical problem with an aircraft, you just don’t know how bad the problem is and how long it will take. Even to get another aircraft takes time. The pilot has to call a service that will work on the aircraft, it may be a minor thing but the sequence of doing everything just takes time. If you unload passengers, then you cannot round them up in the terminal when it is time to leave. Then you don’t know how many people just leave the airport. Then you don’t know if you have to get the bags off the plane. Then you have irate passengers that want refunds and other transportation. Air traffic control and weather issues are other problems also.

  4. that’s a fairly large loophole, in fact, isn’t “disrupt air traffic” pretty much a catchall?

    That’s pretty much the first thing I thought as well, Ugh. Also, I agree very much with the general sentiment of the original post that this doesn’t go far enough. Three hours? That’s a really long time to be sitting in a sardine can that’s going nowhere.

  5. We see here the Republican Regulation Rule: regulations that benefit other people: no. Because big government is a plague on humanity, tantamount to slavery, socialism, fascism and quite possibly a harbinger of the End Times.

    Regulations that benefit me: yes. Because, well, because I’m a frequent flyer.

  6. Triumph says:

    I was once grounded on a plane for 6 hours in Harrisburg and contemplated calling the police on account that I had been kidnapped by United Airlines.

    They eventually allowed us to dock at a gate and get off the plane so I didn’t call the cops–but I always wondered what the effect would have been.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Regulations that benefit me: yes. Because, well, because I’m a frequent flyer.

    That had occurred to me as well but, really, that’s not it. I don’t fly all that often and I’ve only experienced a handful of occasions where I’ve been trapped on the ground more than a few minutes. And it never got close to 3 hours.

    My rationale here is that 1) the federal government has regulated airlines since the inception of commercial flight, for obvious reasons and 2) consumers simply have no power in these situations. This simply isn’t a caveat emptor deal.

    In the recent round of healthcare negotiations, I’ve been opposed to most of the proposed regs because they strike me as unnecessary. But I’m all in favor of the moves to allow insurance to compete across state lines and to prevent companies from dumping sick patients.

  8. Franklin says:


    If memory serves, one similar incident in Detroit resulted in police actually coming out to the tarmac to get people off a plane, because somebody called and said they were being forcibly detained.

  9. James:

    I was just tweaking you.

    I agree with you that this is sort of the bare minimum that could be decently asked of an airline. It’s good to know that while they can imprison us in a metal cylinder and wedge us into torturous middle seats between two fat people and deny us food, water or appeal, they can’t do it ad infinitum.

    Go Jet Blue.

  10. One forgets how government regulation is driving this to begin with. Do you think airlines like wasting huge amounts of money in burnt gas, crew pay, etc. by having planes sitting arround on the tarmac for hours? They do it because there’s an FAA rule that if they return to the gate, they lose their slot in the takeoff line.

    Rather than silly fines the government would be much better off arranging someway of allowing planes to keep their slot as long as they’re capable of returning to the tarmac within within reasonable amount of time (e.g. if there’s a two hour backup in the line, let them go back to the gate and then have ATC inform them when there’s half an hour to go in the line).

  11. Gustopher says:

    Why not just completely deregulate the airplane take off procedure and let all the planes play a big game of chicken to get to available runways?

    Alternately, perhaps this could be solved by an auction. When there is a scarcity of resources (in this case, slots in the takeoff line), let the market solve the problem. Eventually, people will learn that Southwest doesn’t bid enough to ever take off and then start buying tickets for better airlines.

    Or, how about a shakedown? You’re trapped on the plane on the tarmac, and if the passengers can raise an average of $100 a head, they can jump ahead in line and actually take off?