WASHINGTON – 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.
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 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.
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. 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 knocked out power to the airport several times during the day. Luggage belts quit working. Tugs that move planes out of the way couldn’t get traction on the ice. Planes had trouble refueling and de-icing because of the power outages, preventing departures.
No one, including controllers, had a complete picture of what was happening, Babbitt told the forum.
“There is a lot of knowledge out there,” he said. “If everyone had access to the whole picture, they wouldn’t have continued to send planes to (Bradley).”
Among FAA’s proposals to airlines and airports for better information-sharing:
• Creating a webpage monitored by FAA where airports can continuously update information. Airline dispatchers could check the site before deciding where they want to send flights unable to land at their intended destination. Airlines, rather than controllers, decide which airports they want to send diverted flights.
• Expand FAA-hosted teleconferences with airlines to include airports. FAA and airline officials exchange information in teleconferences each day about weather-related and other difficulties affecting the flow of air traffic around the country, but airport officials generally don’t join those conversations.
• Create a better system for air traffic controllers to identify diverted flights.