The summer sun produces a glare on a jet window at Washington Dulles Airport. The boarding pass is from UA flight 3408 which sat on the tarmac at Dulles for over two hours last weekwith its cabin temperature slowly increasing. Kevin Ambrose

If you are a frequent air traveler this may have happened to you. Here’s the scenario:

You board a jet on a hot summer afternoon in any US airport east of the Rocky Mountains. The plane pulls away from the gate and the pilot announces that thunderstorms, somewhere along the flight path, have grounded the airplane. There will be a 30 minute delay. Many of the passengers groan upon hearing the news.

Slowly, passengers begin to notice that the cabin is heating up. The on-board air conditioning system doesn’t seem to work well when the plane is not moving. Everyone opens up the little air vents above their seats trying to find cool air, but it doesn’t help.

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The plane continues to sit on the tarmac, baking in the sun. Passengers get sweaty. The cabin begins to smell bad. The pilot announces another 30 minute delay because the thunderstorms have moved near the destination airport. Passengers start complaining; they are hot, grumpy, and want to go back to the terminal. Flight attendants distribute cups of water and apologize.

The pilot announces yet another 30 minute delay, the air space is now clogged with planes, disrupted by the storms that passed through the flight path over the past two hours. The airplane continues to sit on the tarmac, baking in the sun.

The temperature in the cabin becomes very warm; everyone is miserable and sweaty. Passenger complaints grow louder. The jet finally returns to the gate after a two-to-three hour wait on the tarmac. The flight is canceled.

Recently, regulations have been put in place that limit tarmac strandings on airplanes to three hours for U.S. airlines and domestic flights. For these flights, you can only be held hostage on an airplane for up to three hours before the pilot is forced to release you back at the terminal, or take off for the destination airport. Airlines face stiff fines if they break these rules. Data from the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics show the number of flights with tarmac times exceeding three hours has trailed off substantially in the past two years.

But these rules don’t apply to international travel, and horror stories still exist about passengers being held hostage on planes for six-to-nine hours.

In any event, three hours is a very long time to wait on the tarmac. If a jet doesn’t have good air conditioning, waiting three hours can be quite miserable when the cabin temperature exceeds 80 degrees. During a heat wave, waiting in an airplane without proper air conditioning can be absolutely brutal.

I had one of those nightmare airport experiences last week at Dulles. I waited for well over two hours on UA flight 3408 jet while thunderstorms near Baltimore and Newark delayed the flight. The cabin temperature became ridiculously hot. Ultimately, the flight was canceled and I had to rebook a flight the following day. Soaked in sweat, I took a taxi home after spending all afternoon at Dulles Airport, trying to take a 48 minute flight to Newark, NJ.

I believe there are two main reasons pilots hold passengers hostage on airplanes after leaving their gate:

1) Pilots don’t want to give up their spot in line to take off, if/when flight restrictions are lifted;
2) Pilots have given up their airport gate and many times don’t have another gate immediately available for an unexpected return.

Regardless of these reasons, pilots should closely monitor the conditions in their cabin and plan a return to the terminal before their three hour limit if the cabin temperature greatly exceeds the level of passenger comfort. It seems like common sense, but that rule is not always followed.

Let me know how long you have waited on the tarmac, or if you have any airport horror stories to share?. Also, do you know why airplanes don’t seem to have good air conditioning when they are sitting on the tarmac? Cars don’t have that problem when they are sitting in traffic.

Happy flying, safe travels, and I hope you don’t get stranded on the tarmac!