Passengers were left stranded for fourteen hours inside United Airlines Flight 179 as the weather dropped into subzero temperatures.
On Sunday 20 January, United Airlines Flight 179 was scheduled to fly from Newark, New Jersey to Hong Kong. However, the flight needed to make an emergency landing late at night in a military base in Newfoundland, Canada due to a medical emergency. The 250 passengers onboard were unaware that they would be stuck there for the next 14 hours.
The passenger was taken to a local hospital, but a ‘mechanical issue’ arose preventing the plane from taking off again. The issue being that the crew were unable to close an emergency door, possibly because it broke due to subzero temperatures.
Passengers were prohibited from leaving the plane because there was no customs official on duty at the military base, Goose Bay Airport. Although, NBC reports that they were allowed in a small terminal to stretch their legs for a while.
The passengers on United Airlines Flight 179 were stranded as the temperature dropped to – 30 degrees Celsius. After about ten hours, the passengers even ran out of food. Crew were forced to leave the aircraft and return with donuts and coffee to keep people warm and fed.
Eventually, a relief aircraft arrived to take some passengers back to Newark. Some stayed in Canada to make other arrangements to get to the final stop on their journey.
A unique situation?
The situation experienced on United Airlines Flight 179 is an exceptional one, although not entirely unique. United Airlines had experienced this kind of emergency before.
In 2015, a United Airlines flight en route to London from Chicago made an emergency landing as a precaution because there were certain lights on in the cockpit. The aircraft landed then as well in Goose Bay, and passengers were made to stay at the barracks. There were no towels, blankets or heating in some of the buildings, and it was hours before people were served food. As it turned out, many of the crew were staying, instead, at nearby hotels.
But the situation is still very rare.
United Airlines has a detailed “Tarmac Delay Contingency Plan”, which they are required to implement under U.S. Department of Transportation regulations. The regulations require that, unless certain exceptions apply:
Each Contingency Plan for Lengthy Tarmac Delays shall include, at a minimum, the following:
For international flights operated by covered carriers that depart from or arrive at a U.S. airport, assurance that the carrier will not permit an aircraft to remain on the tarmac at a U.S. airport for more than four hours before allowing passengers to deplane.
So, if the flight was in a U.S. airport, the passengers would have been allowed out after four hours. The problem here however is that whilst United Airlines Flight 179 “departed from” a U.S. airport, it was not delayed “at a U.S. airport”. They were at a Canadian military base.
Disconcertingly, on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s website, it reads:
Although passengers who experience an extended tarmac delay at a foreign airport while flying to the U.S. may be protected from extended tarmac delays by the laws of another nation, they are not protected from extended tarmac delays by U.S. law.
Flight 179 passengers therefore appeared to lack these U.S. protections, being at a foreign airport. Does Canada protect them? We looked into it and found that there are not really any such equivalent regulations in Canada. Nikola Berube, director of AMA Travel, said “There’s nothing regulated in Canada,” and that airlines instead are only bound by their Contract of Carriage with individual passengers.
That might be changing now.
In December 2018, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) announced proposed laws to protect air passengers. These include requiring airlines to return to the gate after a three hour tarmac delay at a Canadian airport so that passengers can disembark. Flights can stay on the tarmac for 45 minutes after that if there’s a reasonable prospect it will depart soon – but anything longer than that, the plane has to let the passengers out.
It is unclear if this will apply to military bases such as Goose Bay. But as the regulations plan to apply to all civilian flights, this may include military airbases.
What does Australia say?
What rights do passengers have if they are stuck in a plane on the tarmac of an Australian airport like Tullamarine or Kingsford Smith?
Unfortunately (or fortunately for some), Australian airlines are essentially free to set their own policies regarding tarmac delays. Australia does not have a legislative airline passenger ‘bill of rights’ like the United States or the European Union.
Disgruntled air customers (after trying to resolve a conflict with a particular airline) can file complaints to Australia’s Airline Customer Advocate (ACA). That organisation does not however have any power to bind airlines.
If the incident on United Airlines Flight 179 had occurred on Australian soil, it may very well have turned out the same.