Judge: Airlines Can Keep You on Tarmac for 9 Hours

An Arkansas judge dismissed a case against American Airlines filed by a passenger who was stuck on the tarmac in Austin, Texas, for more than 9 hours back in 2006.  The passenger had filed a claim of false imprisonment, and while the judge had sympathy for the passenger, he said the case didn’t meet the definition of that charge.

The key part of this is that the airline told passengers they could get off the plane if they wanted to (doesn’t quite sound like imprisonment), though they added that passengers would be “on their own” if they left the aircraft.  The plaintiff added that she felt claustrophobic (really?  in coach?) and had an upset stomach the next day (really?  after 9 1/2 hours on a plane?).  Oh, she added that the upset stomach was likely caused by her not being able to wash her hands after going to the bathroom because the water had run out.  Right.

I can’t imagine how miserable it was being stuck on that plane, but this case had zero merit.  And as much as legislation against this type of thing may seem like an obvious solution, it will cause far, far more problems than it solves.

Airlines have cleaned up their acts when it comes to looooon tarmac delays since the JetBlue snowstorm disaster a couple of February’s ago.  Airlines are quick to allow you to change your flight when a storm is coming, and they now give ample warning for those changes.  Plus, they’re being much more conservative about canceling flights when big storms are coming.  This has done more to improve the customer experience than any piece of legislation would.

I’m hardly apologizing for the airlines, which have done a miserable job apologizing for these types of events.  But let’s be realistic – legislation won’t solve the problem.


  1. @jared blank: you couldn’t be more wrong.

    The tort law surrounding false improsonment was not established with the thought in mind of airlines confining passengers on the ground for extended periods of times. Therefore when you systematically apply the law to these cases they tend to unravel. However, this doesn’t mean the case is without merit. For example, while the woman was offered the chance to deplane, the accompanying threat of abandonement would seem to take away the legitimacy of the offer. The law is not currently equipped for this type of scenario.

    The recent case of passengers confined for 5 1/2 hours on a Continental flight in Rochester, MN shows that while strandings are rare they continue to occur. If you consider the spirit of the law regarding false improsenment it can be reasonably shown that the airline commited a crime, as the basic elements of the tort are: 1) Intention to confine a person within boundaries fixed by the actor and 2) Total restraint (the claimant must have no reasonable way of escaping). Those confined were also deprived of food, water, and even clean air. Even lawfully detained persons are expected to be provided these things.

    As far as legislation goes, it is perfectly suited to this type of situaton. It is the perfect example of why our laws need to evolve. In this case the law needs to change in two ways. Tort law needs to be changed to address the willfull confinement of passengers by airlines and perhaps other industries in the transportation sector. Also the three-hour rule proposed by congress, contrary to your opinion, would solve th problem quite quickly. It is simple, easily enforceable, and would give legal definition to rights that we certainly have but are not currently established in law.

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