Trapped on the Tarmac: Deep Vein Thrombosis Dangers When A Three-Hour Flight Lasts Nine Hours
In last week’s post, “Pan Am Episode 8: Would That Ever Really Happen?” I promised that I would blog this week on when bad weather forces an airplane to divert, or limits landing options when there’s a medical emergency on board. Well, it’s just about wintertime, and you know what that means (for everyone outside of Arizona, that is): airport delays.
Earlier this month I came across the story of a JetBlue flight on which passengers were stranded on the tarmac for more than seven hours. One passenger, a man who is paralyzed from the waist down, was held on the airplane for nearly nine hours. (Read about the story here and here.)
There’s good reason for the Passenger Bill of Rights, which is a set of passenger protections issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2009 that “prohibit U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours, with exceptions for safety, security and air traffic control related-reasons.”
One good reason is that after many hours sitting on the tarmac, food and water often runs out, and lavatories clog up. Tempers often flare. On the recent JetBlue flight, the pilot pleaded for police officers to board the plane to calm passenger tensions.
But there’s also a really critical safety issue here, too. I’ve blogged before about deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which is a clot that forms in the legs, breaks off, moves through the bloodstream, and ends up blocking blood flow to the lungs (pulmonary embolism). It’s most often caused by periods of extended inactivity (like sitting on a plane for nine hours).
DVT is a danger for anyone, though certain people are more at risk than others: those who have had a DVT before; people who have certain heart diseases, cancer, or a blood clotting disorder; pregnant women; smokers; people who are obese; women on birth control; and older patients. People who have recently had major surgery or trauma are also at a higher risk for DVT, as are paraplegics like the JetBlue passenger I mentioned (see Traveler’s Deep Vein Thrombosis: How to Stay Safe).
The Department of Transportation's Aviation Consumer Protection division is investigating the delay on the JetBlue flight. If the government determines any airline violated the tarmac delay rule, that carrier could be fined as much as $27,500 per passenger. Hopefully that would be enough of a sting to keep the airline from letting something like this happen again.
But if you find yourself sitting on the tarmac for nine hours -- or on a transatlantic flight that can easily exceed that length -- it’s important to get up and move around. For passengers who are immobile, leg massage, stretches, and ankle rotations can help keep the blood flowing. Staying hydrated is also important -- though that’s hard to do, of course, when trapped in an airplane with no functioning lavatories.
I’ve written lots about the importance of being prepared. And that holds here, too. Passengers with medical conditions need to prepare far in advance of the flight to ensure that they can bring their medical supplies on board. Though you hope it never happens, once you board that plane, you really are at the mercy of the pilot and crew. Passenger Bill of Rights or no, you never know when a three-hour flight will turn into nine.