By Joan Lowy, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Administration officials promised Wednesday to make changes before the Christmas travel season in an effort to prevent airline passengers from suffering the nightmare of being trapped for hours on a tarmac with no way to reach an airport gate.
"We can move pretty quickly on this," Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters after hosting a forum with airlines, airports and government officials on ways to prevent a repeat of an October incident that left hundreds of passengers stranded in Hartford, Conn.
Twenty-eight planes — seven were large international flights — arrived unexpectedly at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 29 during a freak snowstorm. The planes were forced to divert because weather and equipment problems prevented them from landing at New York-area airports.
Many of the flights sat on the ground for hours — several for more than seven hours — before they could either refuel and depart or unload their passengers. The captain of JetBlue flight 504 begged for help to get his plane to a gate, saying passengers were becoming unruly and he had paraplegic and diabetic passengers who needed to get off.
Within the next week, the FAA will begin including airports in national and regional conference calls they hold with airlines several times a day to discuss problems that are affecting the flow of air traffic. The agency is also launching a hotline and a webpage for airports to alert the FAA and airlines of problems on the ground such as difficulties with as snow removal and de-icing equipment or a shortage of available gates, Babbitt said.
Much of the chaos during the Hartford incident could have been mitigated by better communication among airlines, airports and air traffic controllers, Babbitt said.
If airlines had known so many flights were diverting to Hartford, some probably would have sent their planes to other airports in Providence, R.I.; Albany, N.Y.; Allentown, Pa.; and Baltimore, transportation officials said. Bradley, a medium-size airport, has only 23 gates and typically handles few international flights, officials said.
"This wasn't anybody's fault necessarily," Babbitt said. "People just weren't aware of what other people were doing. That's what we're going to try to alleviate going forward."
A Transportation Department rule implemented in April 2010 limits tarmac delays to a maximum of three hours before airlines must allow passengers to get off the plane. Airlines that exceed the time limit can face fines of up to $27,500 per person. Although Babbitt's comments appeared to relieve airlines of responsibility for the Oct. 29 incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphasized that his department's investigations into each of the flights that exceeded the three-hour limit aren't yet complete.
Airlines say there are a lot of reasons for extended tarmac delays, most related to airport congestion created by poor weather. If planes are held at gates because poor weather prevents or slows departures, then incoming flights have trouble finding a free gate. Sometimes planes sitting for hours in line waiting to take off are unable to return to gates where new planes have taken their place. Customs and security officials won't allow passengers off international flights unless they have enough officials to process them or a secure place to hold them until they can be processed.
Airlines, which opposed the three-hour rule, say many of the delays are beyond their control. For example, one of the problems at Bradley was that there weren't enough Customs officials on duty to handle the influx of large international flights with hundreds of passengers. Indeed, the room
Customs officials use at Bradley was far too small to accommodate all the passengers waiting to be processed that day, officials said.
The airport received 20 inches of snow during the storm, which marked the first time that area of Connecticut had received over an inch of snow in October in more than a century of record-keeping, a National Weather Service official told the forum.