Ravali Reddy spent 12 hours in an economy seat on an Etihad Airways jet in fog-bound Abu Dhabi even before a 16-hour trek to San Francisco. Flying the other way she’d have been allowed off — or the airline would have felt the pain.
The ordeal endured last weekend by Reddy, 22, and hundreds of others leaving the airport highlights a regulatory gulf between countries that means customers on some delayed services are led to the comforts of the terminal while those elsewhere must stew in the cabin.
“It was never really made clear to us why we were forced to stay on the plane,” Stanford graduate Reddy said in a phone interview, with cabin crew insisting throughout that the aircraft would be leaving “in 30 minutes,” even after hours on the tarmac.
Etihad said the grounding was beyond its control given “unprecedented” levels of fog disruption. Yet such delays are statistically far less likely to happen on flights departing the U.S., which is among jurisdictions that impose fines running to hundreds of thousands of dollars on carriers that keep passengers cooped up when the aircraft is going nowhere.
Regulators in the U.S. clamped down on airlines in 2010 following a spate of headline-grabbing incidents, including a Valentine’s Day ice storm three years earlier that left JetBlue Airways Corp. passengers stranded on planes at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for as long as 10 hours.
The new rule required U.S. airlines to release passengers within three hours or face fines as high as $27,500 a customer. Since 2011, foreign carriers at U.S. airports have also faced levies, though they have an extra hour to offload customers.
“They were acting in response to some very high-profile incidents,” said Brett Snyder, founder of the CrankyFlier.com blog. “People were clamoring for something to be done.”
The impact of the rule change has been dramatic, with the number of flights suffering tarmac waits of more than three hours falling to 124 in 2010 from 1,299 two years earlier, with just 26 delays for domestic flights in the first nine months of 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. It has also netted the government a potential $3.64 million in fines.
Though the move has pared epic waits on the taxiway, it has increased cancellations “enormously” as carriers choose a less costly alternative, according to the International Air Transport Association, whose Chief Executive Officer Tony Tyler said in December the U.S. had adopted an “amazingly un-smart” rule.
Airlines are as much as three times more likely to cancel following the change, according to a 2011 Government Accountability Office report, while a 2013 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said delays including scrubbed flights had increased at an annual cost of $9 billion.
Tulinda Larsen, a vice president of industry data tracker MasFlight, said extending the grounding window to five hours would bring greater flexibility, since carriers typically turn to the cancellations after only 90 minutes under the current rules to be sure of avoiding fines. That can mean missing opportunities to take off as obstacles such as fog clear.
While some countries including Brazil and the Philippines also impose penalties for lengthy groundings, rules elsewhere are less stringent.
Airlines flying in and out of Europe are subject to European Union rules and must offer refreshments after two hours and allow travelers to disembark only after five, though without the threat of fines beyond usual compensation, while Canada has no limits on the length of time an jet may stand idle.
In Abu Dhabi, aircraft may not offload passengers away from the stand in low visibility, according to the airport’s chief operating officer Ahmad Al Haddabi. When the plane is at a gate any disembarkation is at the discretion of the airline.
The ordeal of the aircraft grounding has penetrated popular culture, with an episode of Tina Fey’s ’30 Rock’ showing her character leading a passenger mutiny after repeated promises that a plane is set to take off never materialize.
The captain of a Ryanair Holdings Plc flight delayed by high winds at London’s Stansted Airport last February resorted to calling police to let passengers off when handling company Swissport International AG failed to open the terminal after a two-hour wait. Swissport said at the time it should have unloaded people sooner but had no one available to do so.
Neither does allowing passengers to stretch their legs in the terminal work in everyone’s favor, according to Dave Smith of the British Airline Pilots Association, an ex-British Airways captain, who said that people “tend to wander off” when told that the wait could extend to two or three hours.
“In situations like an air traffic control delay all of a sudden they say you can go and you have to get the passengers on very quickly,” he said. “Miss your slot and you have to start the whole process again.”
–With assistance from Frederic Tomesco in Montreal and Deena Kamel Yousef in Dubai.
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