Ask Avvo: What are my rights if I’m stuck on the tarmac?


Imagine being stuck on a plane for 28 hours. That’s what passengers on an Etihad Airways flight from Abu Dhabi to San Francisco had to endure last month when they were held on the tarmac for 12 hours before taking off on their 16 hour flight. Back in December, United Airlines passengers flying from San Francisco to Sydney were forced to wait on the tarmac for eight hours while their flight made a pit stop in Canberra, Australia.

And domestic travelers aren’t much better off. Bad weather this time of year results in hundreds of delayed and canceled flights around the country. In some cases, passengers are stuck in the plane on the tarmac for hours before the pilot is cleared for take off.

Whether you’re staying stateside or setting off for an international locale, you’ll want to know: As a passenger, what are your rights during flights? You may not have as many as you think.

Your rights when your flights is delayed or canceled

If your flight is delayed or canceled due to bad weather, the airline is under no obligation to do anything for you. Each airline has its own policies, which may include booking a flight on a competing airline or putting you up for the night at a nearby hotel.

Check your airline’s “conditions of carriage” or “contract of carriage” for its policies regarding delays, cancellation, lost luggage and more. Here are links for the largest carriers in the U.S.

Your rights when your flight is delayed on the tarmac

Federal law states that if a domestic plane sits on the tarmac for over three hours, passengers have the right to get off the plane unless a security issue makes disembarking impossible. The airline must maintain the bathrooms during this time and provide food and water within two hours of the tarmac delay.

The Department of Transportation can impose fines on airlines that don’t follow these rules. Southwest Airlines was fined $1.6 million for multiple tarmac delays in January 2014.

International flights may sit on the tarmac up to four hours, but after that, the airline may be fined up to $27,500 per passenger for the delay.

You can file a complaint with the Department of Transportation if you were delayed on the tarmac and were not allowed to deplane or if the airline failed to provide adequate food and water during the delay.

Your rights when you’re bumped from a flight

Airlines routinely oversell flights to compensate for last-minute no-shows, and the practice is not illegal. Federal law only requires that the airline provide compensation to passengers who voluntarily give up their seats. It’s common for airlines to not only rebook those passengers on the next flight, but to also give them additional free flight vouchers and lodging for the night.

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But passengers bumped involuntarily do have protection under the law. In that case, you’re entitled to a refund of the one-way ticket price depending on how much later you will arrive at your final destination than originally planned.

  • 1-2 hours: You may receive up to $400
  • 2-4 hours: You may receive 200 percent of the one-way fare up to $650
  • Over 4 hours: You may receive up to $1,300, or 400 percent of the fare

The airline might try to negotiate and offer you a flight voucher instead, but you can insist on a check if that’s what you want.

Your rights when flying internationally 

The rules above apply to domestic flights within the U.S. and most international flights that originate within the U.S. But if you’re flying internationally on a carrier that’s not American or between two locations outside the U.S., different regulations will apply.

For more information, check out or Air Passenger Rights. And if you’re traveling during this season of nonstop blizzards, consider getting travel insurance.