Good news: In 2014, lengthy tarmac delays dropped to their lowest levels on record. According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), only 30 domestic flights had extended, multi-hour ground delays in 2014. Compare that to the almost 900 flights in the U.S. that experienced delays of more than three hours in 2009.
Have airlines finally figure it out? Probably not; there’s just more incentive to avoid protracted delays after boarding. In 2010, following a string of obnoxiously long tarmac delays, the Department of Transportation issued formal rules regulating how airlines are required to manage delays after the plane has departed the gate. They require airlines to provide food and water to passengers after two hours of being away from the terminal building, and the option to deplane after three hours on the tarmac (four hours for international flights).
Waiting any longer on the tarmac could result in fines to the airline as high as $27,500 per passenger aboard a flight. In January, Southwest was slapped with a $1.6 million fine in just one day.
Want to decrease the likelihood you will be stranded on the tarmac? Avoid airports known for lengthy delays. One big culprit is Chicago O’Hare airport where some of the most prolonged delays—and the three most expensive fines for tarmac delays in the last three years—have occurred. Due to the congested airspace around other major hubs like Chicago Midway, New York LaGuardia, and Newark, these airports are among the most delay-prone with nearly a quarter of their daily flights affected. Fog-prone San Francisco is another common culprit, often leading to a cascade of delays later in the day.
While trying to avoid delays is somewhat like trying to avoid paying taxes, there are some flights that are less likely to be delayed or canceled. International flights often take priority as do larger aircraft (especially if they are scheduled to operate an international flight later in the day). Canceling several regional jets may affect fewer passengers and provide more tarmac space than canceling one larger aircraft. This is why the odds are stacked against you when traveling on a regional jet. Also, note that flights transferring between an airline’s hub cities (like Atlanta and New York or Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul) would have more priority to operate on time.
And, lastly, if you can help it—be important to the airline. According to information learned while visiting Delta Air Lines’ Operations Control Center (it’s heart and brain of the airline), where I met with Delta CEO Richard Anderson, additional factors that go into making decisions on which flights to delay include the number of “high-value customers” on board, such as top-level elite members in its frequent flyer program or passengers that paid full fare. Also, if there are several unaccompanied minors on board (children traveling alone), the airline is less likely to delay that flight because facilities may not exist to take care of the child at the connecting city if an overnight or long layover occurs.
Bottom line: Aim for flights in the morning hours, especially those that hold a lot of business passengers. And always download the airline’s app to your phone, or at least have their phone number handy, to address travel changes in real time while stuck on the tarmac.