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Here's what airlines are required to do when you're stuck on a tarmac

The U.S. Department of Transportation does have rules airlines must follow when it comes to keeping passengers idle on the runway. Here's what to know.

VIRGINIA, USA — Groups of passengers were left uncomfortable and frustrated Sunday when they were left stranded on the tarmac at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) for hours overnight. 

WUSA9 spoke with two passengers on American Airlines flight 5197 from Cleveland to DCA. The flight landed at the airport at 11:50 p.m., Flight Aware data shows, but passengers did not get off the plane until around 3:15 a.m. on Monday. Passengers on other flights reported similar issues.

"I’m tired, hungry and I'm just really annoyed,” passenger Mary Elkordy said. 

 RELATED: Passengers report being stranded on DCA tarmac for hours due to Sunday's weather

The airline cited the weather as a reason for the complications. Sunday brought severe storms to the DMV after a three-day heatwave. The weather left behind road closures, damage and thousands of homes went without electricity for hours. 

Although weary travelers may become frustrated with all of the delays and changes that have become synonymous with trips - especially in the pandemic - everyone should beware of what is required of the airline when it comes to passengers' treatment and comfort. It's also important knowledge to have during delay and cancellation season. 

“Summertime is actually more volatile, in my experience than wintertime,” said Foggy Bottom-based travel expert, Director of Airline Partnerships Scott Masciarelli at Connoisseur Travel, who blames the onslaught of summer thunderstorms. “Of course, a big ice storm is an issue [in the winter], but the erratic weather seems to happen in the summer.”

So what do you need to know if you get stuck?

RELATED: No, most airlines don’t pay flight attendants during boarding

To start, there is a limit on how long airlines are supposed to keep you out on the runway. You should also get some kind of update from the pilot no later than half an hour after the delay begins.

The U.S. Department of Transportation states on their website that for flights landing at U.S. airports, airlines are required to provide passengers with an opportunity to safely get off of the airplane before the 3-hour mark for domestic flights and before 4 hours international flights. It's the same length of time for those departing from any airport in the country.

Airlines are also required to provide passengers with a notification regarding the status of the delay when the tarmac delay exceeds 30 minutes. However, they specify that there are exceptions to the time limits allowed for safety, security, or air traffic control-related reasons. 

Sunday night into Monday morning, DCA police tell WUSA 9 that Reagan National was under what’s called a “ground stop.” That’s an FAA air traffic control traffic management initiative that means planes can’t leave the ground.

While passengers landed at 11:50 p.m. and did not deplane until 3:15 a.m. - surpassing the 3-hour-tarmac rule - this was during special air traffic control protocol that could have grounds within the exceptions loophole.

"You should not exit the airplane unless told by the airline that you can do so safely," the department warns.

Another important caveat passengers should be aware that if they choose to get off the airplane during a tarmac delay, airlines are not required to let them back on, which could pose a problem if you are waiting on your flight to depart. 

"The flight may take off without them and passengers may be responsible for finding another flight," the department states. 

The airline is not required to offload any of those checked bags that may be inside before your plane takes off. 

Although airlines are not required to provide you with a full meal, they must give you some kind of snack, like a granola bar, as well as water, no later than two hours from the start of the delay on the runway.

"The only instance in which an airline is not required to hand out food and water to all passengers during a tarmac delay that lasts two hours or longer is when the pilot determines that food and water service cannot be provided due to safety or security reasons," the department added. "For example, when an airplane is taxing on an active runway, it may be unsafe for flight attendants to hand out food and water."

Passengers are also entitled to working toilets, comfortable cabin temperatures and appropriate medical attention, if needed, during tarmac delays. 

For more information about what passengers should expect during these delays, click here.

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