Travel Myth or Fact: On-Time Departure Means You're Leaving On Time

Airlines may define on-time differently than you do.

Dec. 13, 2007— -- Have you ever sprinted through the airport, your heart pounding, hoping that you're on time for your flight?

When you finally make it, you are relieved. Your on-time departure means you're on your way, right? Wrong!

According to ABC News consultant and aviation analyst John Nance, an on-time departure means the airplane pushed back from the gate on schedule — it doesn't mean that you got an on-time departure. Nance says that airlines routinely count flights as on-time, even if a plane doesn't get off the ground for hours.

Last December, Kate Hanni's family vacation got off to a bumpy start when her American Airlines flight from San Francisco to Dallas was diverted to Austin. Time does not fly when you're stuck inside an airplane for nine hours and 17 minutes, plus four hours of flying time, she said.

Collecting Complaints

Lengthy on-board delays like Hanni's are rare, but with an average wait time of almost one hour on the runway, it's becoming a routine problem for the airlines that they blame on weather, too many scheduled flights, too few runways or an overtaxed air traffic control system. Hanni was so outraged after her on-board nightmare, that she left her job as a real estate agent to fight full time for passenger rights.

She started a Web site, and collects complaints about the airlines, receiving 70 calls a day on her hotline. While some airlines including American have modified their own policies, Hanni is now trying to get a law passed in Congress to limit the time passengers can be held on a plane to no more than three hours to avoid being stranded on board.

Steve Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, said his organization opposes any restrictions, because on-board delays aren't just the airlines' fault.

"I think it's a myth to assume everything is in the hands of the airlines, because they get just as frustrated as the passengers," he said.

Lott added that "if you have disgruntled passengers, they're going to go to another airline. So, it's in the airlines' best interest to make sure they're running on-time, as well."

So, what can you do if your on-time departure leaves you stuck on the tarmac? Nance says try to stay calm, be as patient as you possibly can, but document everything. The fact is, there's almost nothing passengers can do right now except in one of our 50 states.

If you're flying through New York in January, a new state law will kick in. Planes stranded on runways in New York for more than three hours will have to provide food, water and working restrooms — but the airlines still don't have to bring passengers back to the gate.