On the tarmac with Qatar Airways

This item appears on page 26 of the April 2012 issue.

I was scheduled to fly Qatar Airways from Houston, Texas, through Doha, Qatar, to Delhi, India, on Oct. 27, 2011, and then return, Mumbai-Doha-Houston, on Nov. 13.

Once in flight, the service in economy class was good, the legroom was good and the flight staff was good. However, after boarding the plane in Houston, passengers sat on the tarmac for five hours before it was decided that the plane couldn’t be flown. We weren’t given anything while waiting, only water.

We all disembarked, perhaps 270 people, then lined up for hotel vouchers and went by bus to the hotel. We all were settled by around 3 a.m. We left for the airport the next morning at 11, waiting in lines to check in again.

My tour group was waiting for me in Delhi, but the ground staff of Qatar Airways didn’t give me any help with notifying them. When we reached Doha, I bought a telephone card for $10 and called the tour leader.

For the return journey on Nov. 13, I left the hotel for the Mumbai airport at midnight, went through all the procedures and boarded the plane only to have the same thing happen again. This time we waited on the runway for seven hours. We were served lunch trays. There were pleas to open the doors, many passengers almost rioted, security was called and some people finally did leave the plane.

After the seven hours, we taxied to the runway, but then the captain told us we couldn’t leave Mumbai because the crew was at the legal limit of their hours of working.

We returned to the terminal, deplaned, got hotel vouchers and were bused to the hotel. Passengers each were allowed one phone call of five minutes to notify family. We took off the next day, 24 hours late, tired and angry.

In both incidents, two weeks apart, it was always stated that they had a technical problem with the airplane.

Guadalajara, Mexico

Editor’s note: ITN e-mailed and mailed copies of the above letter to Qatar Airways (Trump Tower, 725 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022, and 1430 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20005) and received no reply.

On this issue, in most countries, including those of the European Union, there are no rules against airlines forcing passengers to sit in planes on the tarmac for hours and hours. (If any ITN subscriber has information on “tarmac wait” limits being enforced in countries other than the US, please let us know about them.)

In the US, Airline Passenger Protections drawn up by the Department of Transportation (DOT) limit the maximum amount of time that passengers can be held in a plane on the tarmac to three hours for a domestic flight and four hours for an international flight.

Airlines are also required to provide food, water, working toilets and medical care after two hours of waiting, and they must update passengers on the status of the delay every 30 minutes, including the reason, if known.

Any airline, foreign or domestic, operating to or from the US with at least one airplane with 30 or more passengers must comply with these rules. Airlines that break the rules can be fined up to $27,000 per passenger. The only exceptions are for issues related to security, safety or air traffic control.

The DOT began tracking “tarmac waits” of more than three hours in October 2008. Among US-based airlines only, the total number of tarmac waits in the US was 868 in 2009. That number dropped to 124 in 2010 (the DOT’s Airline Passenger Protections went into effect in April 2010) and dropped further to 86 in 2011.

The requirement for foreign airlines to comply with the rules and also to report their US airport tarmac waits didn’t begin until August 2011.

Showing remarkable improvement, at US airports in December 2011, airlines reported only one tarmac wait of more than three hours on a domestic flight and no tarmac waits of more than four hours on international flights.

There may be fewer flights scheduled and planes may be more crowded, but flight cancellations have also decreased, and flights are on time a higher percentage of the time than before.

American Airlines was the first airline fined for a tarmac-wait violation — $900,000 in November 2011 for a May 2011 stackup at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, where 15 AA flights (608 passengers) experienced waits of over three hours on the tarmac.

FYI, the 3- or 4-hour time limit begins the moment when passengers no longer have the option to leave the plane. This normally happens when the doors are shut, but if a plane is at the gate with the doors open and passengers are not allowed off, the time has started.

However, if during that 3- or 4-hour period people are allowed to leave and get back on, the clock resets, starting again when passengers are no longer allowed off.

When an airline allows passengers off the plane while it’s waiting to take off, those people are on their own. The plane can leave without waiting for them to reboard. The DOT “recommends” that “a carrier advise any passenger who desires to deplane that the flight may or will leave without him or her.”