UPDATE:  See also Dr. Lichman’s recent post "Passengers Detained Have Constiutional and Other Legal Rights," which was posted August 13, 2009.

Most of us have been caught in airplanes delayed on the tarmac for what seems like an eternity.  Some of us have really been trapped for as long as 10 hours, often without food, water or sanitary facilities.  Some states, like New York, have attempted to pass legislation that would guarantee stalled passengers at least these basic needs.  Their efforts have not met with success in the courts.  As recently as the end of March, 2008, the Federal 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the New York law as preempted by Federal law governing airline regulation.  

In Chevalier, Allen & Lichman’s view, however, legislation on this subject, though well intended, is superfluous, because passengers are already protected by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Airlines operate on airport property.  Airports receive funding for their development from the Federal government.  In fact, substantially all airfield facilities such as runways, taxiways and navigation aides, as well as a portion of terminal development, are paid for by funds appropriated by Congress and administered by the Federal Aviation Administration.  Moreover, the vast majority, if not all, commercial airports are run by public entities.  Finally, Air Traffic Control is operated directly and exclusively by the FAA.  

Therefore, even though airlines are private companies, they operate on, and, are in fact, dependent upon Federal facilities.  Citizens using those facilities are, in turn, protected by the Federal and State Constitutions, including the constitutional prohibition on “unreasonable search and seizure” set forth in the Fourth Amendment.

It is beyond dispute that imprisoning passengers against their will on a snow bound plane, on an icy airport apron, without food, for an indeterminate period, and without any probable cause to believe they have violated the law, is both “unreasonable” and a “seizure” of their persons.  As a passenger, you may be within your rights to deplane if it is safe to do so.  In the final analysis, you will have a cognizable claim against the airport operator and the airline, both consumers of Federal dollars, under the United States and State Constitutions, and potentially against the airline under state law for false imprisonment, even without additional State or Federal legislation.