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New Tarmac Delay Debacle: 16 Hours from LA to NYC

Here’s another tarmac delay debacle for the three-hour-limit crowd: A Virgin America flight took over 14 hours (some reports peg the journey at 19 hours) to transport its passengers from Los Angeles to New York. The flight was diverted from JFK due to high winds, and flew to Stewart Airport in Newburgh, New York, where the plane sat on the tarmac for six hours. Passengers finally took a 70-mile bus ride from Newburgh to New York City.

To make matters worse, Virgin America staff apparently handled the situation poorly, lashing out at increasingly frustrated passengers as the plane languished on the tarmac at Stewart. Short on food and water, passengers resorted to rationing out Pringles. Some reports say the passengers were kept on the plane, while other reports say passengers were let off. Either way it sounds like something out of Lord of the Flies. It wasn’t until a JetBlue crew intervened that the passengers exited and were put on buses to New York.

To Virgin’s credit, its response to the incident has been pretty good. CEO David Cush sent a letter of apology to each passenger, and Virgin America will refund the passengers’ airfare and give them each a $100 travel credit.

The irony is that tarmac delay legislation designed to deter and penalize this sort of incident is only a few weeks from taking effect. Under the forthcoming Department of Transportation (DOT) rules, Virgin America would face a $3.4 million fine for the delay—$27,500 for each of the 126 passengers onboard. Quite frankly, I’ll be surprised if Virgin America doesn’t receive a fine similar to the one levied after the overnight tarmac delay nightmare this past August.

But with legislation on the horizon, and with strong public backlash sure to follow, why does this keep happening? Well, the initial problem is simple: The flight was diverted from JFK after circling the runway due to unsafe winds at the airport. It landed at Newburgh, where Virgin America has no gates, no operations, and, therefore, no means of assisting its customers. With nowhere to go and probably no sense of how long they’d be stuck at Newburgh, the flight crew decided, perhaps with little choice, to stay put.

More broadly, though, what strikes me is that the staff seemed woefully unprepared for this sort of situation. It’s difficult to judge the choices made by Virgin America’s crew without knowing exactly what happened, but we do know that eventually a JetBlue crew came to the rescue and played a role in arranging a bus. Could Virgin’s crew have contacted other carriers at Stewart sooner? Maybe. And either way, communication and coordination certainly seemed to be in short supply, which suggests there was no plan or protocol in place for this sort of situation.

We also know, thanks to first-hand video, that the crew lost it with the passengers. This is understandable—after all, it’s their nightmare, too—but nevertheless inexcusable. As Cush put it in his letter to the passengers, “Ultimately, it is our responsibility to ensure that our guests are handled with the care and respect that they deserve when they buy a ticket on our airline.”

These incidents are extremely rare, but that does not excuse them. And while many will hold this incident up as further justification for the DOT’s rules, my feeling is that we’d be better off with clear industrywide protocol for bailing out stranded aircraft. Passengers shouldn’t have to wait for luck, or the good graces of a competing carrier, to rescue them.

**Update, March 17** I spoke with Virgin America spokeswoman Abby Lunardini, who provided Virgin’s perspective on the incident:

“Normally a diversion stop requires approximately 30-60 minutes, however, due to rapidly changing and deteriorating conditions the departure from Stewart was delayed well beyond this time. With quickly changing forecasts from air traffic control – we had to make tough decisions about whether to continue to hold or to end the flight. We had received indications that we would be cleared for take-off – however  the weather continued to take a turn for the worse.  At the 4 hour mark, given the conditions, best indications from air traffic control and our lack of operations (see below) at this airport, we made the decision to end the flight and to make alternate ground transportation arrangements (buses to JFK, which JetBlue did assist with) for all the guests onboard.  

“As is custom in diversions to airports where an airline does not have ground crew, other airlines will help provide ground crew services to a diverted aircraft.  We appreciate our colleagues at Jetblue providing ground support service – especially as many other airlines were also dealing with diverted flights.  They assisted our flights after assisting their own. 

“That said, after reviewing the particular circumstances of this diversion, we agreed that we needed to have done a better job with communicating a difficult situation to our guests … Although we cannot control the weather or many of the circumstances of the diversion, we will use this as a learning opportunity to improve how we communicate to guests in difficult circumstances like this.”

She also confirmed that 20 of the 126 passengers did leave the aircraft, and that the restrooms were operable throughout.

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