Travel Horror Story: 5 Hours on the Tarmac

Flyer Rights Have Since Been Strengthened

One of the most uncomfortable travel experiences I ever had was trying to back to the United States from Europe in 2001. I had been studying in Bergen, Norway but it was now time to return to Arizona. I had booked a connecting flight to Amsterdam, then there was to be another connecting flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, then finally on to Phoenix.

The flight from Bergen to Amsterdam was fine. The flight from Amsterdam also seemed to be on track, but then the plane didn’t go anywhere. We were on the tarmac and apparently the plane just wouldn’t start. However, the airline ( KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines) wouldn’t let anyone off the plane, so we were stuck on the tarmac for approximately five hours.

I’ve never been more uncomfortable in a travel situation. There was no air conditioning, so the air kept getting more and more stale. There was nothing to do in terms of entertainment and the TV/movie system was not working. People read their books for a time, but no one brought enough books to entertain themselves for 14 hours on a plane. We received a couple free drinks as I recall, but otherwise there was nothing else to be done, except wait.

When the plane finally did get fixed the pilot sternly urged all passengers to write to the airline or speak to the customer service department. He seemed embarrassed by the situation and explained that he had never seen a situation like this before, when people were made to wait on a plane for so long without air conditioning when we all could have been debarked in the meantime.

Today such a scenario is covered by the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights (passed in April 2010), which requires airplanes to debark after three hours on the tarmac (four hours for international flights). The bill also requires airlines to provide adequate food, water, temperature controls, ventilation and working toilets. If the bill was in place in 2001 it would have saved hundreds of people the discomfort of such a situation.

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(This short essay was written as an assignment for the content site Yahoo! Contributor Network, published Sept. 29, 2011. The assignment had either a word count or character limit, which made for a challenge. What’s striking to me, reading back on this essay with fresh eyes, is that even today this is possibly my worst travel experience. Some of this can be attributed to good luck, but many travel “emergencies” can be avoided altogether with careful planning and a willingness to adapt to problem situations).

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