From Paradise to Hellish Hours on the Tarmac

Posted by Kendall Harmon

After several high-profile fiascoes two years ago, airlines promised to do more to avoid stranding passengers on planes for hours. But Delta Flight 510 is a stunning reminder that the problem persists.

On Good Friday, April 10, what should have been a three-hour flight became a 13-hour ordeal for passengers heading home from a Caribbean vacation. When thunderstorms prevented Delta Air Lines Inc. Flight 510's scheduled landing in Atlanta, the MD88 diverted to Columbia, S.C., for nine hours. Passengers spent five of those hours on the tarmac without food or water.

Airport officials say bathrooms turned foul, children got antsy and some passengers became extremely agitated. One woman called 911 because she needed food. Parents with small children ran short on essentials like diapers. Eventually the passengers were allowed off and held in part of the terminal, cordoned off with yellow police tape.

Read it all from Tuesday's Wall Street Journal.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchTravel

12 Comments
Posted April 30, 2009 at 5:57 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Sick & Tired of Nuance wrote:

Parents of children need to start calling the police and reporting the airlines that do such things.  The airline executives are endangering minors by their reckless negligence.  Keeping children in unsanitary conditions without food or water for hours on end is illegal. 

Diabetics and others with health issues should start calling 911 when the airlines force them to miss a meal.

There is no excuse except greed to keep passengers locked up inside an aircraft for so long.  I think a good rule of thumb is that if an aircraft cannot take off, for what ever reason, passengers should not be held for longer than twice the original expected flight time.  So, for an expected flight time of two hours, the longest passengers could ever stay on the plane, without that plane taking off, would be 4 hours.

April 30, 6:18 pm | [comment link]
2. TACit wrote:

Here is the important sentence in all of this article:
“As the busy summer travel season approaches, Flight 510 is a reminder that severe weather can quickly turn routine flights into strenuous ordeals, and fliers should be prepared.”
Fliers really should go prepared - though of course it’s unlikely returning from a relaxing Caribbean vacation, as the Delta travelers were, that many will be be thinking this way. 
Some other travelers must have memories of the night in March 2006 when Chicago turned away hundreds of flights as 7 people died on the ground in tornado strikes.  My flight from LA, the third in what should have been a 22-23 hours total journey halfway around the world, was told about 7-8PM approaching St. Louis that we would probably go to Des Moines - but ultimately we were turned away from there and later landed on the ‘tarmac’, in a very remote location from which no one could think of getting to the terminal especially in the weather that night, about 11PM.  We were there until nearly 7AM.  It was clear by the wee hours as the promises of buses that would take us to the terminal went unfulfilled that we had been plopped down in a spot where the airline had total control over our situation.  They were saving themselves the costs of hotel and meals for all on board that night.  There was a lot of grumbling, indeed, but by 2 AM many were too tired to get really angry.  The woman across the aisle from me started complaining about her insulin going ‘off’, which evidently it does in 12 hours or so, thus subtly creating a medical emergency - which eventually was the pretext for the first bus they sent out as dawn broke.  She creatively phoned her travel agent in Connecticut and discussed how to make things very uncomfortable for the airline sticking her in that situation.  By the time I reached my destination at the end of the following day I had been on flights or in airports continuously for 50 hours, and had slept perhaps 3 of them.  Best to go prepared.

April 30, 8:37 pm | [comment link]
3. Anastasios wrote:

And of course our medieval forebears would say that pleasure travel on Good Friday was taking a risk anyway!

April 30, 8:59 pm | [comment link]
4. TACit wrote:

And I did mean to include that after Des Moines our flight was diverted to Indianapolis - and to a landing site as distant from that terminal as was possible to reach, I think.

April 30, 9:05 pm | [comment link]
5. The_Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

Well, how exactly does one prepare for an unexpected 9 extra hours on a plane? I mean they don’t let you get on with more than a little bottled water, no ointments larger than 2 ounces, and most diaper bags, etc., are over the allotted space required for “carry on” bags.

I guarantee I’d have been more than agitated after 2 hours.

April 30, 10:25 pm | [comment link]
6. Kevin Maney+ wrote:

TACit #2 you are dead wrong. There is NOTHING that justifies this kind of abuse. NOTHING. Stop trying to rationalize atrocious behavior.

April 30, 11:14 pm | [comment link]
7. GoSane+ wrote:

#6 Kevin Maney+, I really don’t understand your response to TACit#2.  I wonder if you read his/her post in its entireity?  How is it a rationalization of “atrocious behavior?”  I read it as one person’s account of a rather horrific experience.  I don’t read rationalization anywhere in the post.  Just a gentle nudge. . .

May 1, 12:04 am | [comment link]
8. TACit wrote:

(Thanks, GoSane+, I was working on a response too.)  Um, #6, do you mean that it would be smarter to go unprepared, expecting the airline to cater for everyone’s needs?  Not sure what you mean I am wrong about, as I merely reported an experience similar to that of the Delta passengers and suggested that this summer fliers should perhaps think ahead a bit!  It would be great if airlines still valued their customers as they did in the early days of the industry, but those days are in the past, unless Congress does pass an act such as described in one paragraph of the article.  Such an act is not going to get passed before this summer, when passengers are encouraged to travel prepared.
I would be glad to see such an act passed, especially to limit the number of hours on a grounded plane, because otherwise the wonderful forces of the free market will continue to encourage airlines to see their passengers as monetized units rather than people.  That wouldn’t have helped all the people stranded in San Juan PR for a week in September 1989 once Hurricane Hugo blew up and the airport was shut, however - an event I remember mainly because my husband got the last flight for his destination out of SJ, thus saving some major plans we had made well in advance.
#5, I meant to imply one should go mentally prepared, as well as materially to whatever degree that is possible.  Once you are on the plane you have surrendered control in a practical sense - you can’t fly the thing, arrange the weather conditions, etc. etc. - and too many people fly thinking that they still have control over their circumstances.  What you do have control of is how you deal with circumstances you find yourself in, and a little forethought can make the situation marginally better.  If for example I had brought several pieces of fruit or some sandwiches from LA to munch on I wouldn’t have been ravenous when I got to the airport coffee shop at 8AM!  On the other hand, having no drink available I realized as the hours passed I was luckier than those who were busting…...who probably motivated the airline to get us off at last.  Not only were some passengers unpleasant, the unfortunate airline staff took a lot of abuse, which they are expected to do on behalf of their employer, evidently.  There’s another reason Congress should enact some protections.
I really think Congress should include in its Act the requirement that crew do the arithmetic to ascertain if they have enough fuel on board to reach their destination, leaving a conservative margin for error much as engineers do in design.  Two years ago Dec. we were told before leaving LA for Hong Kong that the flight would have to divert through Seoul to fuel up because headwinds were too strong for the amount of fuel the plane could carry - but last January on the same airline, same LA-HK route, I was astonished to hear more than 8 hours into the flight that we were diverting to Seoul because the fuel wouldn’t take us to HK…..no doubt many of of us passengers were asking ourselves how they could possibly have not calculated whether they could get to HK without a stop in Seoul in the prevailing conditions that day!  They should have told us at the gate in LA.  I won’t go into the developments when we had to actually change planes in Seoul because the crew were by that time over their hours limit…..all courtesy of Cathay Pacific.

May 1, 12:17 am | [comment link]
9. julia wrote:

I bet if after a couple of hours everyone on the plane called 911 that would get some response and change the airlines routine responses to these issues.  That will be my strategy next time.

May 1, 9:14 am | [comment link]
10. Terry Tee wrote:

I can understand that things go wrong.  What I cannot understand is when airlines refuse to let you off.  Remember the horrific stories about NorthWest passengers marooned on planes at MSP for up to nine hours during a bad winter day a few years ago?  When some passengers threatened to leave they were told the police would be arrest them.  But surely airlines who refuse to allow passengers off planes that are idle on the tarmac are guilty of illegal imprisonment?

May 1, 4:03 pm | [comment link]
11. BrianInDioSpfd wrote:

Were I detained on the ground that long, I would be seriously tempted to file a criminal complaint for kidnapping, unlawful restraint, and violation of civil rights.

May 2, 12:00 am | [comment link]
12. Katherine wrote:

The problem with this flight was that it was international, coming from the Caribbean.  Its destination in Atlanta has an immigration and customs facility; Columbia, S.C., where it landed, does not.  Delta obviously needs to develop some procedures to cover this situation.  I note that when they were finally let off the plane for a while, they were kept in a separate area because they were not, until passing through immigration and customs, legally in the U.S.  Airlines need to set limits on how long people can be kept on planes and develop plans to deliver food and other supplies to passengers impounded for immigration reasons.  It seems Delta could have done this a lot sooner in this case.  As a frequent flier with some miles, I’d have pulled out my mileage card and called the Delta service number to alert them to the problem.

People with health problems or traveling with small children should plan ahead for contingencies.  Were I diabetic, I would carry some suitable portable food with me at all times.  What if you’re stuck in a massive traffic jam?

May 2, 3:10 am | [comment link]
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