Tarmac delays are a thing in the USA, and Canada, but what exactly are they and what do we do about them?
The USA Tarmac Delay
Basically, it is all to do with passengers being trapped on an airplane unable to get off, which apparently sets in at the 4 hours mark.
They are enforced by the DoT and apply to everyone operating in and out of US airports (if they have 30 or more seats).
WHAT ARE THE RULES?
- Passengers must be offered the option to get off an airplane before the 4 hour time limit is exceeded
- A PA must be made every 30 minutes advise passengers of the estimated delay, status of delay, reason etc. Basically keep them informed.
- Make sure folk have food and water at the 2 hour mark
- Always ensure passengers have access to toilets and medical attention if needed
- Properly explain to them the options
You can find the official rules right here. If you’re heading to the USA then don’t delay in reading them.
WHAT DO I NEED TO DO?
Start a timer: The time runs either from when doors close, or from when passengers are onboard and are no longer allowed off. So think about whether you put the belt sign on while doors are open as well! Don’t forget it applies to inbound aircraft as well (stats at arrival, so pretty much on landing).
Don’t start the timer if there is a safety or security issue which would make it unsafe for passengers to get off. For example a massive storm and risk they’d get zapped by lightning if they went out onto the apron, or if ATC say you can’t.
Take notes: If you end up in a tarmac delay you are going to have to report a bunch of stuff.
- When pax no longer had the option to deplane
- Time you made the last PA about departure time
Make a PA: This needs to happen at 30 minutes, and then every 30 minutes after that. You can delay it if you’re in the middle of a critical manouevre like taxying or taking off.
Offer food and water: This has to happen at the 2 hour mark
Offer them the option to deplane: They need to understand the options and have to be able to actually get off if they want to at the 4 hour mark. So you might want to ask them before 4 hours are up, and might need to think about the taxi time to get them to a place where they can get off – it has to be possible at 4 hours!
Leave without ‘re-planing’ pax – Yep, you can do this (so long as you made it clear you might). You don’t even have to remove their bags.
Report the tarmac delay to the DoT: Any delay exceeding 4 hours has to be reported. You have 30 days to report it.
ANYWHERE I SHOULD WATCH OUT FOR?
Yes. Right now, these places:
- Central and South Florida: They see some BIG summer storms which often result in ground stops.
- In August 2023 KMCO/Orlando, KTPA/Tampa, MIA/Miami and KFLL/Fort Lauderdale have been seeing departure delays of between 75-120 minutes.
- Aircraft not taking off causes ramp and apron congestion so think about it on the way in as well.
A good place to keep an eye on is the National Airspace System Status site which shows current delays, stops and other handy info. Check it on the way to the airport and get your company to send you updates prior to arriving if airborne.
You can also see a lot of useful statistics on tarmac delays here. KJFK is the worst so far this year.
The Canadian Tarmac Delay, eh?
The two main differences between the Canadian and USA tarmac delay rules are this:
- Canada only allows* 3 hour delays
- Canada specifies that the timer only starts once doors close, and is from wheels down
There are some small differences worth noting as well:
- The Captain can stop the food and drink service if they need to for safety, like they are actually about to take off
- You don’t have to let folk disembark if Takeoff is imminent. That means it is “the reasonable opinion of the pilot in command” that takeoff will occur no later than 3 hours and 45 minutes after the start of the tarmac delay.
Check out their rules on it all here.
Things to think about
The door closed or seatbelt sign on situation – remember the USA is a bit stricter on this so don’t close those doors or put the belt sign on until really ready!
Weather – this can be a tricky one to manage because you do have the whole ‘hazardous weather’ thing to fall back on, but can you really use that when just sat in a de-icing queue?
If weather is delaying departure, but is not hazardous where your aircraft is, then a tarmac delay will still apply.
Consider all options – Not having steps isn’t a reason to not allow deplaning. No, they can’t leap off, but you do need to make sure you’ve really looked for all options.
Customs – If you’ve arrived and are looking at a deplaning, you’re going to want to coordinate with the airport authority and especially CBP.
Don’t forget your fuel – a taxi back to let folk deplane may use up more of your contingency than you planned for. Lengthy departure delays also burn your fuel. Don’t leave yourself fuel.