The ordeal of Etihad Airways Flight 183 to San Francisco—which made headlines this week when hundreds of passengers were stuck on the plane for nearly 28 hours, 12 of them on the tarmac in Abu Dhabi—has many travelers wondering: What are my rights if something goes wrong at an international airport?
The answer isn’t encouraging.
You likely have few, if any, rights in a situation like last weekend’s flight from hell—especially in cases of foul weather wreaking major havoc with airline schedules. Airlines generally don’t owe you anything if there’s a weather-related delay, since that’s out of their control; that’s also true in the U.S. However, what airlines must do in the U.S. is return to the gate if a flight is being held on the tarmac for more than three hours—four hours for international flights—or risk being subject to massive fines.
— Elite Daily (@EliteDaily) January 5, 2015
That rule only came about after some horrific episodes of passengers trapped in airplanes for hours on end, which ultimately put the heat on Congress and the Department of Transportation to adopt the so-called tarmac delay rule. The idea is a sound one: No matter what’s causing the delay, it’s simply inhumane to hold customers for hours on end in the cramped confines of an airline cabin, especially since crews typically are prohibited from serving anything more than minimal sustenance during such delays. (Etihad is famous for its frills upfront, like its new first class suites, but obviously most of the suffering fliers were in coach.)
Europe also has strong consumer protection rules in place for delayed passengers, and requires that airlines allow passengers to get off a plane that has been stuck on the tarmac for more than five hours. But most countries outside of the U.S. or the E.U., however, don’t have such policies in place, so it’s up to the individual airline or airport to take action.
So, what went wrong with Flight 183?
It was a bizarre and unusual case of dense fog completely shutting down a major connecting hub—and due to its location, it’s a hub servicing an inordinately high number of widebody, long-haul flights. As we wrote in our roundup of the world’s longest flights, Etihad’s flights from its Abu Dhabi base to the U.S. west coast are quintessential endurance runs, logging more than 16 hours and nearly 8,000 miles.
For fliers facing an already super-long flight, the delay was particularly painful—and, judging from the flood of irate comments on social media, the response from the airline crews involved was woefully inadequate.
Etihad has apologized to the passengers for the ordeal. It has said it will re-examine policies on how to handle extreme delays like this; and in the age of Twitter and Facebook, any company that doesn’t own up to the issue and promise swift action risks doing damage to its reputation. U.S. passengers do have some recourse, even if a mishap took place overseas. They can file a complaint with the DOT, which does collect gripes against all airlines operating in the U.S., including foreign carriers.
That might not lead to any compensation, but DOT will contact the airline involved—and if it gets a lot of complaints against a company, it might investigate the cause.
More from Conde Nast Traveler