We hear about nightmare delays in which people are stuck on planes for hours at a time. Why will this happen, and what may be done concerning it?

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Marathon tarmac strandings receive tremendous attention and are great for stoking the public’s implacable hatred for airlines. In the grand scheme of things, they are extremely uncommon. Annually, around 1,500 flights in the United States face delays exceeding three hours; that seems like a lot until you remember there are close to ten million departures each year, 85 percent of which arrive on time or earlier. Even so, there are no good excuses as to why the simple act of getting people off a plane and into a terminal, or getting food and water out to a stranded aircraft, has been, at times, such an ordeal. In 2007, after a midwinter snow and ice storm slammed the Northeastern United States, hundreds of jetBlue passengers in New York were stranded aboard grounded planes for as long as ten hours. A few months earlier, an American Airlines jet sat on the ground in Austin, Texas, for more than eight hours. And most memorable of all, in 2000, thousands were stuck aboard Northwest Airlines planes for up to eleven hours during a New Year’s weekend blizzard in Detroit.

These public relations disasters were symptomatic of, among other problems, airlines’ general reluctance to think outside the box, and a failure to adequately empower their employees—captains, station managers, and others in the chain of command—to make critical operational decisions. Get a stairway. Get a bus. Let people deplane on the apron if you have to.

You could say they had it coming, and since 2010, U.S. airlines are now legally beholden to a maximum three-hour constraint for departure delays, or a maximum of ninety minutes for arrival delays. Passengers must be allowed to deplane before exceeding those limits. Failure to comply means fines up to $27,000 per passenger. The rule, a key component of what is sometimes referred to as the Passenger Bill of Rights, is exactly the sort of get-tough measure that people have been screaming for. But was it necessary, and will it work? And beware of unintended consequences:

Picture yourself on a delayed airplane going from New York to San Francisco. Parked out on the taxiway in a snowstorm, your assigned ATC wheels-up time is only twenty minutes away. But because the three-hour tarmac limit is about to elapse, the plane is compelled to return to the gate. After docking, several passengers, having missed their connections, choose to get off and go home. This means their luggage too needs to come off. And because going back and forth to the terminal burned a substantial amount of fuel, the jet also must be refueled. Coordinating all of this will involve a large number of personnel—most of whom are, at the moment, dealing with other flights—and a whole new flight plan will need to be worked up and printed. Let’s be conservative and say that everything takes an hour. You’re now a minimum of thirty minutes later than you would have been without returning to the gate. Throw in the need to de-ice, or the possibility of crew replacement because of duty time regulations, and it’s substantially worse. And missing that wheels-up time means you’ll be assigned a new one, and lo and behold it’s another two hours away. Your three-hour delay just became a five-hour delay.

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