Q. During the weekend's snow, my wife and daughter were sitting on a plane at Belfast for over three hours heading to Scotland. Did they have any rights to food or water?
A. In theory, yes; in practice, no. For passengers, few experiences are more frustrating than sitting on a plane on the ground. My record is seven hours on a Northwest Airlines (now Delta) aircraft from Philadelphia to Amsterdam.
Why do airlines put their passengers through the ordeal? Because they hope they will be able to depart soon, which will be in everyone's interests. Any captain is happier knowing that all his or her passengers are on board, rather than roaming around the airport becoming involved in lunch or being seduced by all the shopping. The plane is then ready to leave at the drop of an air-traffic controller's hat.
If a suddenly available slot (or the chance to be de-iced) is missed, the delay can get even more extensive, and expensive.
Europe's current rules on passenger care theoretically (EU261) apply to Tarmac delays, such as your wife and daughter suffered. They were in principle entitled to a drink and a snack after two hours. However, airlines are permitted to forego such care if the process of providing it will delay the plane further.
Were they passengers in the US, their rights would be much stronger. The Department of Transportation rules on "Tarmac Delay Contingency Plans" stipulate that, after two hours, "adequate food and potable water" must be provided, as well as "operable lavatory facilities". After three hours, passengers have the right to get off the plane. Heavy fines are applied to airlines that fail to comply.
The European Union hopes to act to confer passengers with some specific rights about "Tarmac delays" including the right, after an hour's wait on the ground, to air conditioning, to the use of toilets, to medical assistance and to drinking water. But these will not take effect until next year, which will be rather too late for your wife and daughter.
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