Heavy fog at Abu Dhabi’s airport contributed to a nightmare journey for Etihad Airways passengers flying to San Francisco this weekend, including an incredible 12 hours in which they were stranded on the tarmac and not allowed to leave their plane. A different Etihad flight from Abu Dhabi to Dusseldorf, which had a tarmac delay of more than 13 hours, had an even more tragic ending: The plane was forced to reroute to Vienna after a 73-year-old man died during the flight.
It’s not entirely clear why the passengers on the San Francisco and Dusseldorf flights were not allowed to deplane. Passengers, which complained of being kept in the dark by the airline, were told by the flight crew at one point that the delay-stricken airport was so swamped with people that there was no room for them to deplane, according to the Associated Press.
One SF-bound passenger also tweeted that the immigration staff were not in place to process the travelers’ re-entry into Abu Dhabi:
The San Francisco CBS affiliate reported that among the passengers on the flight was an unaccompanied 11-year-old girl.
Molly Rogers was particularly anxious. Her 11-year-old daughter was on the flight alone and Rogers was unable to reach anyone at the airline who could tell her what was going on. She finally saw her daughter after a 28-hour wait. “I was really missing my mom,” said the girl.
The ugly tarmac delays are unlikely to enhance Etihad’s reputation with frequent travelers, especially as the national flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates makes a major international expansion push.
The incident is reminiscent of several high-profile flight delays—including a notorious 11-hour incident with Jet Blue in 2007—that spurred US aviation regulators to institute strict policies about how long passengers can be kept on the tarmac, including heavy airline fines for non-compliance. The US rules currently limit delays to three hours for domestic travel and four hours for international, after which passengers can demand to be let off. But delays that take place outside the US are not subject to the rules.
The European Union’s rules give passengers the right to deplane after tarmac delays of five hours. After one hour, the airline must provide air conditioning, water, and toilet access.