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Plenty of Blame in Latest Tarmac Delay Debacle

Earlier this week, a Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Newark was diverted due to bad weather, and landed in Hartford. What followed is a scene we’ve come to know all too well: The plane spent four hours on the tarmac, with passengers complaining of inadequate food and water, and some even fainting from the heat.

And as details about the episode trickle out, another familiar aspect of these delays is emerging: It was just one big mess. Let’s break it down:

Landing in Hartford in the first place: Since the flight was coming from London, passengers needed to be processed by customs before they could disembark. Hartford is indeed an international airport, but only serves a few international flights (to Canada), meaning its customs operations are small in comparison to other potential alternatives. Scott McCartney at the Wall Street Journal wondered why the plane didn’t divert to Boston or Washington, D.C., or even Montreal, all of which have much larger international operations than Hartford. It’s a fair question with no clear answer at this point. It’s up to the flight crew and the airline’s dispatchers on the ground to decide, so perhaps cockpit recordings will give some insight.

Virgin, of course, has no operations at Hartford, meaning there were no airline officials on hand to assist and advise the flight crew, or provide additional food and water for the passengers.

No customs officials on the ground: Making matters worse, Hartford’s small customs operation wasn’t adequately staffed when Virgin’s flight arrived, and the few officials at the airport reportedly threatened to arrest passengers if Virgin unloaded before more immigration staff arrived (customs officials deny this). “Coordinating an international arrival shouldn’t be the elaborate logistical exercise that it is,” says pilot and columnist Patrick Smith, “but like it or not, airlines are not allowed to disgorge hundreds of people, be they American citizens or foreigners, without the proper document checks, etc.” 

It took roughly two hours for more staff to arrive.

The conditions onboard: Passengers complained that the plane quickly grew very hot, and some even fainted. Above all else, Smith is most perplexed by this: “One thing I really don’t understand is the supposed overheating issue. During long ground delays, crews will typically shut down the main engines to save fuel, it’s true. But they do not shut off all power and air conditioning. What they do is transfer the supply of electricity and air from the main engines to the auxiliary power unit. In most cases its output is adequate for whatever cooling or heating is necessary. But if it’s not, no crew would be so masochistic as to refuse to power up one or more engines.” 

One commenter on McCartney’s article claimed to have been a passenger on the flight, and said the pilot informed passengers that the auxiliary unit wasn’t functioning. If true, however, why didn’t the pilot run the engines on the ground?

The Department of Transportation’s (DOT) recent proposals for new consumer protections would extend its domestic tarmac delay rules to international carriers. This means that in future incidents, Virgin Atlantic would need a contingency plan in place, and this plan would include a maximum tarmac delay time that the DOT would enforce with fines of up to $27,500 per passenger. The DOT is actually considering a fine anyway, even though Virgin is not yet included under its rules. The DOT should also consider a rule that allows international flights to unload passengers into a secure area between the gate and customs. This would allow passengers to at least get off the plane, and perhaps enable airport staff to provide food, water, and a reasonably comfortable place to wait it out.

Readers, what do you think? What could, or should, have been done better in this situation?

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