A group of airline passengers were forced to call 911 to get the police to rescue them after they were held onboard a plane for nearly six hours following a weather-related diversion to Fort Lauderdale Airport.
As noted by aviation journalist Seth Miller, details of the incident were made public on Wednesday after the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it had decided to fine the airline $250,000 for failing to deplane the passengers after the tarmac delay hit the four-hour mark.
U.S. law requires airlines that operate flights to, from or within the United States to have contingency plans in place for lengthy tarmac delays. In most cases, airlines are required to allow passengers the opportunity to deplane once the delay has hit a certain length.
In the case of domestic flights, the length of the tarmac delay is three hours and for international flights, a tarmac delay of four hours should trigger the opportunity to deplane.
On July 23, 2019, Eurowings flight EW1182 from Dusseldorf to Miami was forced to divert to Fort Lauderdale after bad weather temporarily stopped operations at MIA.
Once on the ground in Fort Lauderdale, the Eurowings plane was sent to a remote part of the airfield where the crew requested permission to deplane passengers via busses to the terminal building.
But U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) would only allow passengers to deplane if their checked luggage could also be offloaded. When the plane landed at 5:14 pm, there were no luggage handlers available, so the passengers were initially forced to wait onboard.
Although Eurowings doesn’t operate regularly scheduled services to Fort Lauderdale, the airline was able to source luggage handlers around two hours into the tarmac delay and at around 7:15 pm, the passengers could have been deplaned into the terminal.
At this point, however, the crew decided not to bother deplaning the 268 passengers onboard and instead chose to wait out the storm affecting Miami in the hope they could soon continue their journey.
The plane sat on the ground for the next three and a half hours until, at 10 pm, the crew were advised that Miami was still closed due to bad weather.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passengers were becoming ‘restless’ and some of those onboard called 911 in a bid to secure their freedom. In the end, the police turned up to help them deplane at around 10:50 pm.
Eurowings, a subsidiary of the German flag carrier Lufthansa, said in response to the DOT investigation that the tarmac delay was the result of “forces beyond its control” and that the CBP “frustrated” its attempts to deplane passengers because of the requirements to offload checked luggage.
The airline also says it attempted to send a relief crew to take over the aircraft but that it took them 90 minutes to reach Fort Lauderdale Airport due to bad traffic and severe weather. Once inside the airport, Eurowings claims it took a further 90 minutes for the relief crew to clear standard security screening.
Although Eurowings disagrees with the DOT’s decision to issue a big civil penalty, the airline has entered into a Consent Order to avoid an even bigger fine.
In 2021, United Airlines was slapped with a record-breaking $1.9 million fine by the DOT for a series of lengthy tarmac delays between 2015 and 2020. In total,
3,218 passengers were affected by the delays $750,000 of the fine was earmarked to compensate passengers.
As well as providing an opportunity for passengers to deplane, airlines must also supply snacks and water once the tarmac delay hits two hours.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.