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I was recently on a flight to Washington DC, but due to adverse weather conditions at DCA we were redirected to Philadelphia to await suitable conditions to land in Washington. When we landed at PHL, we were told that we would have to remain on the plane because the airline didn't have client services at that airport. It's not one that they normally fly to.

After some time waiting on the plane, the flight crew announced that US Customs would allow us out onto the jetway so that we could at least stretch our legs and get some fresh air, but we were still not permitted to enter the terminal.

Why was the airline and/or US Customs and Border Protection not allowing us into the terminal? Does it have to do with the fact that the airline doesn't normally fly to that airport? Or maybe it was because PHL closes late at night? (We landed at 11:20PM EST and took off again at 2AM.)

Here are some details about the flight(s), if the specifics help. I'm interested in general regulations and policies that address situations like this, though.

http://flightaware.com/live/flight/SCX235/history/20160203/2340Z/KMSP/KPHL

http://flightaware.com/live/flight/SCX235/history/20160204/0615Z/KPHL/KDCA

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DCA has no US Customs&Immigration facilities at all and only accepts international flights from origins with pre-clearance. I don't see why Customs would have been involved for a domestic flight? – Calchas Feb 15 at 17:29
    
@Calchas That was puzzling to me, too. This was a domestic flight, but for some reason Customs had a say in whether we could get off the plane in Philadelphia. – Simon Feb 15 at 17:31
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It might be that the only available gate was an international gate, and therefore they wanted to be sure that you would not be mixed with the international passengers. They need to be able to physically close off the airbridge. As for not letting you into the terminal, well people might wander off and get lost and then cause further delays. – Calchas Feb 15 at 17:41
    
Specifying the actual airline / flight / origin would probably help figure it out. – jcaron Feb 15 at 23:08
    
@jcaron I've added links to FlightAware for what ended up being the two legs of the flight. – Simon Feb 15 at 23:21
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I think the other answers do a very good job of explaining why you couldn't go into the terminal (the need to pay fees for use of the gate, use of personnel to board people afterwards, personnel to help disabled passengers, unaccompanied minors, etc). However, I'd like to clarify the customs part of the question:

Since you couldn't go into the terminal, the only other option was to let you "stretch your legs" on the tarmac. As I understand it, in international airports the tarmac area is a customs-controlled zone. The tarmac area of an airport is an area that has a lot of potential for abuse as far as customs/immigration is concerned, because there's a lot of mixing of people and goods of different status (e.g. you have airport employees, domestic passengers, arriving international passengers yet to pass through immigration, departing international passengers, and all these groups of people can have goods with them). You can see how if it wasn't controlled, it would be easy to e.g. sneak something or someone into the country. So, procedures exist to minimize and control this mixing in a customs-controlled area. So, likely one of the procedures is that the airline can't just decide to let people out of the plane without checking first. Also, it's a potential security risk, I wouldn't be surprised if airport security / TSA was probably involved in the decision as well. By the way, as I understand it, even if the airport only accepts cargo flights from international destinations, the tarmac area may still be a special customs zone.

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Actually, by "jetway" I meant the passenger boarding bridge between the gate and the airplane's door (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jet_bridge). Are you saying that's technically considered part of the tarmac? – Simon Feb 15 at 19:26
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@Simon I think he's saying that their only options for letting you out of the aircraft were 1) terminal, 2) ramp (tarmac,) or 3) jet bridge and, of these three, the jet bridge is the only one that doesn't have a customs or security reason for not letting you enter it. – reirab Feb 15 at 21:21
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Simon - I thought you meant tarmac when you said jetway, but perhaps reirab is right - basically the terminal wasn't an option because of the cost, the tarmac wasn't an option because of customs rules, so someone at US CBP may have just suggested the jet bridge as a 3rd alternative/compromise when they denied permission to use the tarmac itself. And jetways may just be part of a customs-controlled area, seems to be airport-specific, e.g. definition of customs-controlled area for Toronto Pearson Airport: cbsa-asfc.gc.ca/security-securite/cca-zcd/toronto-eng.html – Eugene O Feb 16 at 16:11

If the airline isn't operating in this airport, then it means that they aren't paying any fee for using the airport services. Airport services aren't really pay as you use them. So a flight can't come and leave passengers like this...

Then it is also a matter of responsibility. What if the passengers start looking around and don't come back for the flight. The flight could be delayed even more and this woulf cost a fortune to the airline without elaborating on the schedule problems it could cause to the airport and others airlines.

Then for the customs, even if this is an internal flight, I guess they could do some random checks on the passenger list so if an unexpected flight comes, it could cause trouble to their organization even if I agree that it would be less of a problem than for an international flight.

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I understand how your first point applies to my flight, since they would eventually have to re-board us. But, had there been some emergency preventing the flight from continuing on to our original destination, wouldn't they have to let us leave the airport some other way? – Simon Feb 15 at 23:11
    
And as for your second point, I would expect them to treat that scenario just as if you'd missed the flight in the first place. Too bad for you, maybe if you're lucky you can re-schedule. I'm not sure that US Customs ever does random checks on domestic flights, either. – Simon Feb 15 at 23:16

My first official answer, so bear with me.

There are several reasons for this. There is a document created by the US DOT (here and more thorough one here) that pretty much covers all the reasons. It seems, primarily for the safety of the passengers (Enhancing Airline Passenger Protections). These are Tarmac Delay Contingencies.

Brief summary to answer questions:

  • Since the airline had no presence at that airport, as other answers have pointed out, they have no means of providing any services for disembarkation/re-embarkation. I have personally experienced a rare case where another airline's operators helped with this and allowed passenger disembarkation. But, it's rare.
  • Customs and Border Protection was involved per DOT policy. In the linked document, Customs and Border Protection is one of the agencies that should be coordinated with. The other being TSA. It depends on which one is appropriate. In the case of an airport that services international flights, Customs would probably be the appropriate one.

Hope this answers your question.

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I'm sure there are various potential answers but here's a couple:

  1. Some airports are "closed" with the exception of international flights. Depending on the origin country, some late arrivals are just necessary. So Customs might have had a say at that hour because it's just who was available.
  2. The make-up of the passenger manifesto could play a role. For example, if you had people on your flight that required wheelchairs and those services were not available then it wouldn't be fair to them to release the passengers and have them unable to go anywhere. Same could be said for minors on-board. Much easier to keep everyone on the plane.
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#2 looks like a strange excuse to me. Make it worse for everyone because it's fair. (I'm talking about the missing services case, not unaccompanied minors) – Dmitry Grigoryev Feb 16 at 11:16

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