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Why you’re still stuck on the plane after landing at LAX — and what you can do about it

Airplanes on the Tarmac and at gates at LAX.
(Brian van der Brug)

Question: I know that after a certain amount of time on the tarmac, an airline must take action to deplane passengers. The last three times I have returned to LAX, my plane would arrive within 20 minutes of scheduled arrival but would sit on the tarmac or cruise around looking for a “parking spot” for as long as an hour. Someone was waiting to pick me up, and it wasn’t pleasant. About 10 years ago, I ran into this same arrival delay problem, but the passengers were shuttled to the terminal. Why not make this a viable alternative when terminal delays are expected?

Michael Montgomery

Culver City

Answer: It’s complicated, but we will explain after dissecting what is happening.

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First, two notes about Montgomery’s travel dilemma: If you have friends who have offered to pick you up at LAX, these are exceptional friends in a city where someone agreeing to fetch you at LAX is, as my mom used to say, as scarce as hen’s teeth.

Second, if you have friends who have offered to pick you up at LAX this summer and you want to remain friends, tell them you’ll walk, take a cab, summon Lyft or Uber or reserve a shuttle.

Both American Airlines and LAX officials say this may be a star-crossed summer for LAX.

Although Montgomery’s issue was with American, Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that arrival delays at LAX are mounting for many airlines. This May (the most current stats available), the average arrival delay was 5.18 minutes; American was 5.48 minutes. The previous May: 4.68 and 0.07, respectively.

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American was not the worst so far this year. Southwest, a passenger hero for many because it doesn’t charge change fees or for checked bags, showed an 11.07-minute average delay.

Blame several factors for this time suck.

LAX is expecting a more than 7% increase in passengers this season than last, so as you grumble about delays and such, you’ll have plenty of company — about 24.5 million others, according to LAX stats released before Memorial Day.

The improved economy that’s bolstering passenger numbers is also responsible for an increase in the number of flights. Statistics aren’t yet available for June, when Montgomery’s problem occurred, but you can see the proverbial handwriting by comparing May 2016 with May 2015: 6.78 million scheduled passenger aircraft arrivals and departures this year, 6.35 million last.

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Don’t let your eyes glaze over just yet. There’s more bad news for passengers. You already know that there is interminable terminal construction at LAX..

Anyone who has spent 45 minutes or so driving from Terminal 1 to, say, Terminal 4 (which I recently did as I imagined a digital meter trending upward for my shared ride) knows that the arteries passengers use to get into the airport are clogged. In fact, if these were real arteries, the patient would be in grave danger, accent on the grave part.

What passengers may not realize is that construction also continues on runways to create what’s known as Runway Safety Areas, which means you’re safer if your aircraft under or overshoots its landing. This federally mandated update is designed to save lives, which is rarely a bad thing, especially if it’s your flight.

Work on the third of four runways is continuing. At the beginning of the runway work, LAX said there would be some delays.

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All this adds up to a trifecta of tardiness for outbound or inbound passengers.

For those who get itchy sitting on a tarmac and want to invoke the Department of Transportation “let-me-outta-here” rule, the DOT said this in a statement announcing the new regulations that went into effect in the spring of 2010:

“The new rule prohibits U.S. airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers, with exceptions allowed only for safety or security or if air traffic control advises the pilot in command that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations….”

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Here’s what the airlines must do, that December 2009 statement said: “Carriers are required to provide adequate food and potable drinking water for passengers within two hours of the aircraft being delayed on the tarmac and to maintain operable lavatories and, if necessary, provide medical attention.”

Although 60 minutes may seem endless, according to the DOT rule it is only annoying and not actionable.

The number of stuck-on-the-runway incidents has declined since the new rule, as airlines feel the financial pain of violations. Southwest got a $1.6-million smack on the behind in January 2015 for incidents at Chicago’s Midway. If this chart-topping fine wasn’t enough to encourage compliance, the DOT shook its finger and said, essentially, don’t do this again.

So why not just deplane people rather than making them wait?

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Polly Tracey, an American spokesman, apologized for the LAX delays and added that “remote parking of aircraft at LAX … is sometimes available to us, though this remote pad is also used by other airlines and so there is not always space available.”

“We believe that arriving into one of our terminals is a much better experience for our customers and so we will always favor that option if it is open to us,” she said.

“We have had to make some difficult daily decisions this summer, which includes using the remote pad, on occasion, if it provides a better experience than a delay on the taxiway.”

For those who do get detained on any airline, the keys to peace of mind may be a good book, a cold drink of water (from the bottle you held back when service items were picked up) and a cellphone that’s charged (because you wisely packed an external battery or your plane has outlets and you had your charger) so you can call your driver.

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Those items won’t give you back your time, but they are increasingly necessary in a summer when three positives — our country’s and our own financial health and the government’s concern for your safety — can create one huge negative.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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