Hartford tarmac stranding doesn’t justify new laws

The Halloween weekend stranding of more than 1,000 airline passengers at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., brought the tarmac delay activists out in full force again, pushing for new laws that they claim would prevent lengthy ground delays.

The circumstances were admittedly dreadful. On Oct. 29, air traffic controllers diverted 28 flights to Hartford after a freak snowstorm hammered the region. Many planes were grounded for hours in the blizzard, unable to reach the terminal. Supplies of food and water dwindled. Toilets became clogged. Tempers flared.

In response, help may be on the way from Washington. On Monday, the U.S. Transportation Department wrote its first ticket for a tarmac delay, a $900,000 fine against American Eagle Airlines for keeping hundreds of passengers stuck on a plane in Chicago this year. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department also announced that they would hold a forum Nov. 30 to find better ways to handle aircraft diversions. And the current version of the FAA reauthorization bill would enshrine existing federal regulations limiting the length of time a plane can wait on a tarmac into law.

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“The haphazard airline tarmac delays that occurred in Hartford to airline passengers have happened one too many times, and frankly, it’s unjustifiable,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told me. “Passengers’ rights need to be strengthened so events like this never happen again. That’s exactly why I have made airline passenger rights a priority in the Senate FAA bill.”

I can’t argue with the fact that airline passengers have few rights and that they could stand to have a few more. The Transportation Department and FAA should be meeting — indeed, should have met years ago — to discuss this issue.

But does all this legislative effort need to be devoted to an issue that affects next to no one and is already heavily regulated?

Let’s look at August, the last month for which numbers are available. It had just three delays of more than three hours out of 541,442 scheduled flights, according to the Transportation Department. The previous month? One flight out of 547,219.

Excessive tarmac delays have been on the government’s radar ever since a Northwest Airlines flight was grounded during a 1999 snowstorm at Detroit’s Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Efforts were well underway to address the issue even before the latest gang of tarmac activists parachuted into DC, and there was a consensus that the new regulations, the last of which went into effect in August, would fix whatever problem remained.

But if the FAA bill had passed before the latest incident, would it have made any difference?

To find out, I interviewed everyone involved in the latest tarmac stranding: the two major airlines affected, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines; airport officials; and the federal and Connecticut transportation departments.

Although several investigations are ongoing, all parties seem to agree that a variety of factors led to the lengthy delays, including weather, power outages, air traffic control and inadequate facilities.

For instance, an American Airlines flight from Paris diverted to the Connecticut airport couldn’t move because of issues related to U.S. customs.

“After landing, our dispatch center staff twice asked customs to process our passengers so they could leave the plane,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for American. “Customs, with a very small staff at Hartford, said it was first-come, first-served, and we were the last international flight in.”

American asked for permission to unload the passengers to a departure lounge in the terminal until customs could process them, but the request was denied. More than seven hours later, the passengers were let off the plane.

Hartford, meanwhile, had even bigger problems, according to Judd Everhart, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. “Virtually the entire airport lost power,” he told me.

About 6 p.m., the systems shut down one by one, including the Federal Inspection Station, the fuel farm, air traffic control, the Army and Air National Guard installations, the fire stations, Federal Express and UPS, the cargo facilities, the parking garage, the remote lots and all remote rental-car facilities. Backup generators restored power to some of the essential facilities, including the main terminal.

Would the proposed measures in the FAA bill have helped?

Of course not, said Michael Miller, a vice president at the American Aviation Institute. The Connecticut tarmac delays, like many others, weren’t caused by just one thing but by a set of circumstances that an airline can’t control — in this case, the weather and the decisions made by air traffic controllers. “Law or no law, an airline still needs air traffic control permission to move a jet just one inch,” he said.

I checked with a Senate staff member on the benefits of writing the current federal regulations into law. She told me it was necessary to ensure that a future administration can’t get rid of the current regulation or waive it. Also, the new law would go further than the existing regulations by subjecting airports to a civil penalty for holding passengers on the tarmac.

I would happily support the tarmac-delay provisions in the FAA bill if I thought they were anything more than grandstanding by a few misguided activists. Or if I didn’t think that the legislators supporting the bill were only doing so because they’ve grown weary of incessant whining by these special interest groups and their wrongheaded insistence that tarmac delays are the most pressing issue for the traveling public.

The truth is, no law could have brought any of the planes back to the gate any faster in Hartford. What’s more, because tarmac delays represent such an infinitesimally small problem for air travelers, the disproportionately lengthy discussion we’ve had about them in the past several years — including the one we’re having right now — has diverted public attention from the truly important issues that affect all airline passengers.

I’m afraid that tarmac delays have set the cause of passenger rights back by decades. It’s a shortsighted fascination for which all air travelers will almost certainly suffer.

86 thoughts on “Hartford tarmac stranding doesn’t justify new laws

  1. If the tarmac delay law was really in favor of enhancing passengers rights then it would have required compensation that went directly to the the victims – the passengers themselves. Unfortunately, I don’t think a cent of the steep fine goes to the passenger at all. Worse, the airlines would have to make up this cost (in their books) by jacking up fares to other passengers. And to avoid the fine, airlines will cancel more flights requiring passengers to have more unexpected food and lodging expenses while they are stranded at the airports or at some “foreign” cities. In the Hartford tarmac incident, they should have fined Bradley airport instead of the airlines. I don’t think instituting fines to one party will fix a complex problem of this nature since there are many parts of the system that are a fault.

    1. Tony, of that fine $250,000 was to be used to compensate 608 passengers:


      “American Eagle, the commuter-airline arm of AMR Corp., agreed to a
      settlement under which it will pay a fine of $650,000 and give the
      passengers a total of $250,000 for the May 29 incident at Chicago O’Hare
      International Airport. On that day, 608 passengers were stuck on 15
      arriving planes beyond the three-hour limit as they waited for gates to
      open up or an opportunity to reach the terminal via bus.”

      That comes out to just under $400 per passenger. 

      I’ve flown through Newark regularly, and will often have a “tarmac delay” there.  I’d much rather be in the terminal, where I have options of getting cash and food, finding a bed at a local hotel, etc than sitting in a sardine can. 

      The problem is both airports and airlines — shrinking the size of aircraft flown domestically and needing more frequent departures, shorter gate turn around times, etc, all requires either near clockwork perfection or results in cascading delays.  Even ignoring the imperfections in weather, expecting the near perfection in turn around times is beyond the normal capacity of people who travel.  Fewer, larger flights carrying the same number of passengers may be less convenient for the individual’s schedule but will result in a more fault-tolerant air travel system.

      1. Condor, I suggest you read the CONSENT ORDER and not take the main stream media reporting as fact. AMR settled and the amount was mitigated. Please read this http://airconsumer.dot.gov/EO/eo_2011-11-13.pdf

        American Eagle Airlines, Inc. is assessed $900,000 in compromise of civil penalties that might otherwise be assessed for the violations found in ordering paragraphs 2 and 3 above payable as follows:(a) $650,000 shall be payable within 30 days after the service date of this order; and

        (b) The remaining $250,000 shall be payable on December 1, 2013, less any amount credited, as set forth below, for refunds, as well as vouchers and frequent flyer miles provided to passengers that may be used to acquire transportation on American Eagle Airlines, Inc./American Airlines, Inc. flights, subject to the following conditions:i) Vouchers shall be credited at 80 percent of their face value;ii) Frequent flyer mileage shall be credited at $.02 per mile awarded;iii) Refunds shall be credited at their cash value;iv) The refunds, vouchers, and mileage must have been given to passengers on the flights covered by this order or for other flights that experienced tarmac delays after the service date of this order, provided that those other flights do not involve violations of the tarmac delay rule;So here’s what the Passengers will get – REFUNDS and VOUCHERS, if any! Nothing in the consent order *requires* AMR to actually give a refund. It just said they can REDUCE the settlement amount payment by the amount of refunds they give away (not to exceed $250k).

        That’s not compensation. That a return of passenger’s money they paid for in the first place. In Europe, a 3 OR MORE hour delay can earn you EUR 250~600. Now that’s compensation.

        1. Actually, in the EU, you get food and accommodation for weather-related delays or cancellations, but no extra compensation. That compensation is only for when it is wholly the airlines fault with no outside issues such as weather or ATC.

          1. You are correct Susan. But I just wanted to make the point that the EU has a passenger-friendly compensation system. Unfortunately for Americans, we got neither food and accommodation or compensation.

            Any by the way, American Eagle has spun-off from the mother company. Therefore, my reference to AMR is incorrect as it should now be American Eagle Airlines, Inc.

  2. When I read these stories, what comes to my mind is that it is not so much the fault of the airline, but of the airport.  It seems that most airports do not have any contingency plans to handle planes getting stuck on the tarmac due to bad weather.  I really think the fines should be leveled against the airports.  I think of it like you driving into a parking garage and there are no places to park and there is no way you can get out of your car until there is.  How is that the driver’s fault?

    Bottom line is something needs to be done.  While the numbers for the last two months reported only 4 out of 1,000,000+ flights, that doesn’t sound like much, unless you were one of the people on those 4 flights.  You know if there had been a high ranking airline employee or government official on one of those flights, something would be getting done *NOW*!  (And on a side note, how many of the people inconvenienced by the stranding is going to see any of that fine?  Again, the government penalizing someone for doing wrong but not passing the restitution to the people wronged).

    What I would like to see is the FAA to require every airport that can accept commercial flights be require to have a contingency plan on file with the FAA and it have to be updated/reviewed every few years.  Airports should have an area where stranded planes can be disembarked and the passengers held in facilities with adequate facilities.  If a plane gets stuck, and the airport can’t disembark them within an hour of landing, start hitting the airport with the fines, and sending part of that money back to the people being stranded!

    1. Clarification on my comment about having a place for planes to disembark.  After the plane is unloaded, it can be towed to another part of the airport to wait until it can be properly serviced.  There is no reason/excuse that the passengers have to be left on the plane while waiting.

    2. Weren’t most of these problems DIVERTED to smaller airports? Umm do we expect Windsor Locks (BDL) to handle JFK’s traffic? IMO when you divert a bunch of airplanes to a smaller airport, then all bets are off.

      1. This isn’t the first time a situation like this has occurred in BDL.  Flying back from Rome, I sat on the BDL tarmac for over 4 hours while waiting for weather at JFK to clear (and pass through BDL too).  If BDL is part of JFK’s contingency planning, then YES we should expect there to be a systemwide plan in place to handle the situation.  In my instance, and this one, the issue was the availability of customs officials or secure areas to handle offloaded passengers, *not* the gate capacity of the airport.

        If the plan had been “wow, JFK’s shutting down, let’s get secure areas active and/or more customs officials to BDL,” we wouldn’t be having this discussion.  We’re not talking massive expense here, just a plan for handling a totally predictable (and repeated) situation.

  3. It is very clear in this case that the airport was the one with the issues that prevented people from landing.  Sounds likely that Traffic Control had a very big part in it too – Bradley is not a big airport – so sending so many flights that could not land in New York or Newark only a short distance away into the path of the snow storm makes no sense at all.  As it turned out, Hartford was among the hardest hit areas.  Seventy percent of Connecticut lost power in the storm, the Hartford area was without power for close to a week.  Hindsight is perfect of course, but if at least some of the planes could have been diverted to Boston or Albany to be far enough out of the storm path, the crunch might have been reduced.  Or perhaps the shorter flights never should have started out.  I happened to be in Hartford early afternoon and saw the snow starting.  I was driving north and was able to outrun it (foolish maneuver, but I had contingincy plans if it got too bad to drive) certainly some weather forecaster who has seen New England snow storms could have looked out the window to see the storm was coming early and it was going to be big.  There is a feel to the air and the snow, one does not have to be a bear to know it is time to hibernate. The snow was dense and wet and the trees still had all their leaves, so the electrical lines were going down.  That should indicate a no-fly zone and common sense say stay away.  Even after the people finally got off the planes, I am sure they had trouble getting ground transportation.  There troubles were likely not over quickly.

    1. Boston was a related problem because they took the diverted landing of an Airbus 380, which is too big for that airport. It’s wingspan blocked others from using one of the runways sending many planes to the smaller Bradley.

    2. Boston was very much affected the storm. My old neighborhood in that city received over 20″ of snow. Albany also was getting pounded. If I were in charge of air traffic control, I would have sent these flights to Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Spreading them out among four airports, all not in the direct path of the storm, would have meant that none of the airports would have had a problem accommodating the flights (except for the Airbus 380). Pittsburgh does have reasonable customs and immigration facilities so the international flights could have been sent there. 

      I cannot find fault with JetBlue or American for what happened that weekend. The blame lies with the air traffic control system which made the decision to send all of these flights to small airport which was experiencing the same problems as the New York City airports.

      1. I live in Boston. We got about 4 inches of snow.  No part of Boston got 20 inches, and certainly not Logan Airport.  Worcester, an hour away, got a lot, but ORD gets about one flight per week, and certainly no diverted planes in this storm.

        1. Mark, you are correct. My cousin, who lives in Brighton, had told me that they got 21″. I guess that he just “slightly” exaggerated. I checked a couple of websites and they both show 2-4″ in the city for the storm. Perhaps I need to get a new cousin 🙂

      2. Buffalo, just like Detroit has the customs staff they can bring in to process the international flights. Buffalo can handle the A380…if not there is an alternate airport they can use that can….it has limited charter service and is usedby the Air Force..so its runway and airport could handle the A380s.

        It isnt hard to divert the longer international flights to Buffalo/Rochester/Pittsburgh if they had the forsight of a few hours and told to planes to slightlightly change there path.

        The big issue with tarmac delays and rerouting is the refusal to let passangers just deplane on the tarmac and walk to the terminal.

        The mistake they made was to diver the aircraft to airports that were part of the storms track.

        This caused chaos a few Decemebrs ago in the Pacific NW between Seattle and Portland.  There was an unususal weather pattern where over a week or so the lowlands were getting 4-6 inches of snow every other day.  At one time Seattle was closed and flights went to Portland then the storm shifted and closed Portland and flights went to Seattle so many many people missed their flights.  You dont divert planes into a similarly affected area.

        1. Huh? I thought that there were only a few airports in this country that were ready for the A380 and Buffalo is not mentioned on any list of A380 airports that I could find. To accommodate the A380, an airport needs to have extra wide taxiways and runways. The tarmac area needs to be increased and gates/jetways need to be modified. Buffalo apparently does not meet the minimum requirements. 

          Also, since Buffalo does not have any scheduled overseas departures, I did not think that they had the customs facilities to process large numbers of passengers who arrive in aircraft like the B777.

    3. Did I not read that this particular flight had limited fuel reserves and needed to land as close to its original destination as possible?

  4. Common sense dictates that the FAA needs to allow Airlines to be able to discharge their passengers into the Terminal or other areas for humane reasons. We’re not cattle. Why an Airline cannot move an aircraft parked at the terminal out of the way for a tarmac parked aircraft leaves me baffled. I know it becomes a logistics issue inside the terminal, but isn’t more humane to allow people to have access to basic needs?

    1. In that case, the FAA should make airports cooperate – not the airlines. It is the airport (at least here) that wouldn’t let the passengers in rather than the airline who wouldn’t let the passengers off.

  5. Add to my previous post. Why can’t the airlines then send service vehicles to the tarmac waiting aircraft to dump the holding tanks and bring food/water for the passengers? The cost would be minimal to the airlines and probably bring relief to those waiting on the aircraft.

    1. They were having power problems and staffing issues dealing with that many people.  The airlines might not do all of those services.  They contract out many of those services to other companies.

      I would think that needing to prepare that many unexpected meals at a smallish airport would be difficult if not impossible.  They might be able to get takeout at a local McDonald’s.  I remember being in a group of over a hundred, and one McDonald’s had these huge bags that could store food enough for a dozen people.  One location between Las Vegas and LA serves about 20,000 a day.  They get dozens of tour buses stopping by every hour.

    2. everything y_p_w said, plus this: the lav trucks are not designed that way. you can’t just drive out and empty the “holding tanks”. it doesn’t work like that.

  6. The White Halloween storm was really bad in part because so much wet snow fell and also because many trees still had leaves and collapsed under the additional weight. Hundreds of thousands of people without power for days and sometimes more than a week. People died. Damage was in the billions. The people who spent hours on the plane should be compensated, but the millions of others should be compensated even more. God is going to be broke.

  7. I really don’t understand your lack of empathy for the unfortunate passengers IMPRISONED on these planes. Actual prisoners in some countries (perhaps not the US) are treated better.

    There are physical and psychological problems which can make such treatment dangerous. I have borderline hypoglycemia, which requires me to eat protein on a regular basis. I carry emergency supplies when I fly, but they won’t last more than three or four hours after a long distance flight.

    On several recent flights I deplaned and reboarded using stairs and buses, and I see no reeasons why stranded pasengers could ot be rescu ed the same way.

    I do agree that this is an airport as well as an airline problem, and airports should also be penalized. I also agree that part of the fine should go to the passengers. I guess I can only hope that Chris will find himself trapped on a plane for six or seven hours (something I would not normally wish on anyone) in the expectation that might change his mind.

    1. But what do you expect to happen? These sorts of things happen very rarely, and the only way to completely avoid them completely would be to not fly. Increased fines or different enforcement can’t prevent this sort of thing from happening the very few times it does.
      The airport can be just as much at fault (as is here) so creating rules for airport authorities could possibly help, but would still be difficult.

    2. I really don’t understand your lack of empathy for the unfortunate passengers IMPRISONED on these planes.

      Are these comments not enough for empathizing then?

      The circumstances were admittedly dreadful.

      I can’t argue with the fact that airline passengers have few rights and that they could stand to have a few more.

      I would happily support the tarmac-delay provisions in the FAA bill

      One can empathize without necessarily agreeing. For instance, I empathize with the mother who lost her child to hazing, but I don’t agree she gets to hit the perpetrators with a bat if they’re charged in court.

      Nonetheless, I do empathize with those who suffered being unnecessarily stranded at the tarmac, even if you feel that’s not enough.

  8. This was a real freak situation, due to Boston not being able to take any others, the power outage at Hartford, and the fact that they could not move the planes due to those problems.  I don’t think haveing a law in place would change those circumstances, and what most folks don’t realize, is that if there is no power and no equipment, there is no way to GET to the aircraft in these situations.  In instances where they sat on a tarmac in the heat of summer, NO EXCUSE.  But in this one, no law would have given any succor to these passengers, because there was no way to get TO them, or get them off the planes.   Horrible situation, but could have been worse if the weather had actually caused one to crash land.

    1. Sadly, this was no “freak” occurrence. Sure, a lot of complications piled up, but this is not the first time BDL & TSA personnel have left people on the tarmac because they didn’t want to have to deal with them. It happened this summer, too … and without the handy excuse of a power outage or bad weather to explain it.

      Sorry, but I don’t for one moment buy that BDL personnel could do nothing for these people. I just do not believe it.

      The fact is that personnel at BDL absolutely, positively, will not come in after hours to help stranded passengers, and they absolutely, positively will not ever lift a finger to do anything extra for anyone, ever.

      Note, I live in CT not far from BDL. So I’m not criticizing them lightly or out of ignorance. There have been too many of these stories over the last couple years coming out of BDL. The folks who work there need to grow up and get their butts in gear when a problem crops up, instead of digging their heels in and refusing to help.

  9. In the case of the American Airlines flight from Paris’s delay was CAUSED by the GOV’T…a branch of it anyway..the U.S. Customs department. They wouldn’t even let the people off the plane into a specified area of the airport.  How can AA be held totally responsible for that delay when it was NOT their fault?

  10. Chris misundstands the correct method of analysis. He fails to counterbalance the infrequency of the situation with its severity. For example, murder is infrequent but huge resources are allocated due to its severity.

    Similarly, while Tarmac delays are rare, they’re hell,.

    1. Carver, I think you need to re-read Chris’ post. He is arguing that we do not need a LAW codifying the RULE that is already in place today. Sen. Rocky wants to make it a LAW so it can’t easily be gotten rid of. Nevertheless, Sen. Rocky’s (long term FAA funding) bill got stuck in the senate. But the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (“THUD”) appropriations “Mini-bus bill” was passed that will fund $12.5B for the FAA through 2012. Obama signed that bill yesterday 18NOV. End of story till the next tarmac delay.

      1. Yes, the whole argument is whether these laws against the airlines will do anything, and the answer is clearly no.  It’s the controllers that have the say on where planes go, and fining the airlines will do squat but give these idiots in the Senate something useless to crow about.

  11. Tarmac imprisonment is imprisonment.   Protecting even one innocent person certainly rises above the regulation level.  It likely even rises above the legislative level to the constitutional level.  People have medical issues, heart medications, dialysis schedules to keep, diapers to change, bathroom needs, lungs to fill.  If it’s too snowy to roll steps out, then the air shoots should be deployed.  These unscheduled “landings” should be treated as crashes.  Rescue now.  Ask questions later.   These small scale crimes against humanity are still crimes against humanity

  12. The simple answer is common sense on the part of airlines, airports and government agencies. Having said that, it appears that in these incidents common sense is in short supply in one or more of these entities. Unfortunately, until we can be sure that things like this do not happen laws are the only way to get the agencies to pay attention. Tarmac delays are only a small problem when they happen to someone else. A catastrophe when they happen to me.

  13. Once again we place the blame where it doesn’t belong.  Fine the controllers for leaving jets on the tarmac.  End of story.

  14. Personally, I agree with Chris here. Sure, tarmac delays suck and being stuck on a plane for hours can be frustrating. But it’s not on the same level as genocide or third-world prisons as other commentators have posted.

    Airlines and airports don’t want planes sitting around for hours any more then the passengers do (remember, time is money. If the plane is just sitting there, the airline is hurting too.) But stuff happens sometimes. The most recent batch of tarmac delays have happened because weather came in and muck everything up. The various authorities are trying to get people off of planes, but just takes time when the power’s out, the phones are down, and equipment is frozen over or out of fuel. And the reality is- all the laws and regulations in the world isn’t going to prevent every possible incident.

    Adding more regulations and laws can have unintended consequences. Since the tarmac delay rules went into effect, airlines have been cancelling more flights. So now instead of just being delayed for a few hours, some folks are now not getting to their destinations at all. Not at all helpful.

    I’d be okay with abolishing the rules which will allow tens of thousands of passengers to get to where they’re going and accept that there might be a very small risk that a plane gets stranded for a few hours. Remember, if there’s no rule, the airlines still have a lot of incentive to avoid a stranding due to all the bad press they’ll get (which will cost them $$$) if an incident does occur.

    1. You don’t get it.  I want them to cancel the flight rather than be stranded on a tarmac.  If they cancel a flight, I will go to a hotel until I can fly.  I won’t be stuck on a plane.  Some of these 13 row regional jets are very very small…bad enough you have to fly on them.

      1. Oh, I do get it. I’ve even sat on those regional jets for a few hours. Here’s the problem though. If the forecast is for say, very light snow, airlines would still run their flights before the new rules. Now because of the new rules the airlines don’t want to even take the slightest chance of a 3 hour and 1 minute delay so they cancel their flights. If all the airlines in the airport do this (and there have been situations in the past where this has happened), good luck trying to get a hotel room because everyone else is too. And good luck getting a standby seat the next day, or the day after that because airlines are having occupancy rates of 90% on many routes.

        Now, instead of being delayed a few hours, people are now being delayed for days or having to cancel trips completely under the new rules.

        1. Maybe they should figure out how many planes they can evacuate and cancel some of their flights…

          I don’t see why they would have to “cancel” all of their flights, just enough to make it manageable.  They already manage everything else, they can start managing this a little better.

          The problem is that when I read about people stranded on a plane, more often than not it is a stupid excuse like “the airline didn’t have an agreement” or “the gate people thought there were supposed to be TSA people present and there weren’t, so they left them on the plane all night”.  This sort of typical stupidity is what bothers me.  And it is all too typical.

          If there’s 20 feet of snow and no one can move, I could understand it.  However, if the snow isn’t higher than the snowplow and the excuses I hear are stupid ones, such as I noted above, I have a difficult time with it.

          1. I don’t see why they would have to “cancel” all of their flights

            Simple: to avoid paying the $27K per passenger fine. That may sound as an excuse to some people who especially hate the airlines, but who’d want to risk that sort of thing?

            Don’t fret, though. Some (if not all) airlines acknowledged they brought that upon themselves, and have already taken measures to address those.

            Unfortunately, some of those measures, as mentioned earlier, resulted in unintended consequences like canceling flights “prematurely”. 

      2. If I had to either have my flight cancelled or sit on the tarmac for 3 hours and get there 3 hours late, I would rather get there in the end. It’s just when it gets to overnight that it becomes a serious problem.

        1. The real question the airlines are grapling with is should they cancel the flight if there’s a 2 percent chance of being delayed. They’ve always cancelled the flight if there would certainly be a three hour delay. The new regulations encourage them to cancel flights if there’s a 10 percent chance of delay. The question now is do they cancel more flights, sooner, at the first hint of bad weather.

      3. Well not everyone has the means to “go to a hotel until I can fly”.  If bad weather hits during Thanksgiving or Christmas (and believe me, it does happen), you are going to have people stuck possibly for days before they can get a continuing flight.  It’s one thing if you haven’t left home yet and can just turn around and go back, but otherwise, you are going to be stuck in destination and/or connecting cities at your own expense.  I’m glad you are well-off enough to rack up a $500 food and hotel bill until you can get a return flight.  Not everyone does, which means days on a cot or on the terminal floor in the airport.  Look at what happened in London last winter.  Several hours stuck on a plane isn’t fun, and I’m not condoning it – but your solution is better, how?

        1. I remember that show that was on A&E about Southwest Airlines. It seems a lot of people fly without even an extra dollar or two on them.
          I would be scared to fly like that.

          Actually I do think of such things and I do make sure I could cover hotel and food for awhile if I am stuck.  In fact, I carry enough on me so that if the whole credit card system were down, I would still be able to do it.  I hate to tell you this but pretty much everyone I know could handle the hotel bill for a few days.  They might not like it, but they could do it.  In the United States, there are too many former bus passengers taking the plane.  They carry less than $5 on them and a few packs of cigarettes.

          Furthermore, my credit card has flight delay insurance on it, so I am covered. 

          Maybe you don’t like my answers, but I do fly prepared.  I don’t want to sit 10 hours on a 13 row plane, thank you very much.

      4. as others have pointed out, you’re in the vast minority. people scream and bitch and moan at me when their flight is canceled and they have to stay overnight, or longer. they demand i pay for their hotel room when it’s an obvious weather issue. and though we certainly will NOT pay for hotels in that case, we do offer discounted rate services to those who are stranded. wanna guess what a “discounted” hotel room costs in NYC? nearly $200. and that’s IF you can get a room, since everyone else is clamoring for the same.

        and we’ve already mentioned the slimmer chances you’d have of rebooking your flight anytime soon, since most planes are already filled.

        i’m glad that YOU’RE okay with a cancelation rather than a tarmac delay, because that makes my job so much easier and less stressful. however, please realize you are not so common.

        1. Bet the people who own hotels near the airport are some of the biggest backers of laws requiring flights be cancelled rather than delayed. If there”s a dusting of snow, they can sell empty rooms at premium prices.

          1. Tom, during the volcano delays and such, I checked the hotels I regularly stay with to make sure they weren’t gouging people.  If they were, I would not longer stay at them.  I don’t have a problem with them going to their regular rates, but I do take issues with price gouging.

          2. Bill, you probably forgot to check the car rental rates in Spain when the Icelandic volcano struck. As many re-rerouted to Spain and drove to their destinations, car rental rates went through the roof. My sister was  one of the “victims”.

        2. Flutiefan, you’re right on both counts. A lot of people whine a lot. And I am pretty easy for the gate agents to deal with.  They’ve even told me so.

          They are going to whine anyways, so let us off the plane:)

    2. I know airlines don’t like to have “excess inventory” that goes unused.  That’s why they have all sorts of fares including those that theoretically barely pay for fuel.  Getting a low-fare paying passenger on a plane means more revenue than having that seat empty.  That’s why they’ll deal with Priceline.

      Without “running lean”, airlines aren’t going to be able to stay in business.  That means not having excess fuel stores, since every bit of weight matters when it comes to fuel consumption.

      However, I have been lucky a few times.  I remember leaving from Miami when our plane was grounded for a mechanical problem.  We were lucky it was an American hub where they were able to pull an idle plane from the fleet.  If it had some other another airport, I think they would have had to either send it to maintenance, divert us to the next flights if space were available, or send in another plane.

  15. I think that people responsible for keeping people on planes for that long should serve jail time.
    It is completely unacceptable to be held hostage on a plane.  You get on, you fly, you get off.  If this isn’t happening, you aren’t on a plane.

    I don’t want to compare it to an Iranian prison.  But being stuck held hostage on a plane is completely unacceptable to me.  Period.

    1. Then don’t fly if it really matters then? Keep in mind that you are also held hostage when the plane is actually going somewhere since you can’t get out then.

      1. I don’t think I should not fly just because someone is stupid and thinks that they need to have TSA agents working in the middle of the night in order to let someone deplane. Or a competing airline won’t help passengers deplane because they don’t have an “agreement”.

        When the plane is actually going somewhere, I know how long it is for and I’m fine with it.

        Sadie, they aren’t malicious enough, but they are stupid enough.

    2. Whereas I believe you are overreacting, without question you are entitled to your opinion.  Similarly, am I not also entitled to my own?  As a six-year-old I learned that “circumstances alter cases.”  Not a popular admonition these days it seems.  A combination of circumstances led to this unfortunate event, but it is not the end of the world and we still have to maintain some perspective.

      I have also learned that for every problem there is a solution.  The solution to this particular problem could be years away, but it could also be just around the corner.  What I know is that ALL concerned parties must work together to solve it.  I cannot believe that there is anyone alive who would be malicious enough to work deliberately to confine hundreds of passengers in an airplane for 7 hours when it was possible for them to be deplaned.

  16. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.  But I seem to remember that the whole reason for the original Regulations was because there had been a huge uptick in the number of severe tarmac delays.  If tarmac delays have now been reduced to just a couple per year, then isn’t it likely that the Regulations have been at least partially responsible for the success?  Furthermore, Senator Rockefeller’s desire to turn the Regulations into actual law makes perfect sense as a way to make sure the lobbyists don’t get to veto the regulations when a new administration comes in.

    1. The real problem is The tarmac delay rule doesnt fix nor prevent the problems that occur due to weather events when their is poor planning and ofrsight by the airlines, airports, and FAA.

      The october snow storm was forecast more than 24 hrs prior to the events so it was more than enough time to cancel flights or divert flights to safe airports.

      1. ha! they predicted that the snow would hit in early evening, and yet there we were at noon, getting pounded! the flights took off at 10am from Florida airports, and much earlier from overseas, so the ATC could not possibly have anticipated this. the experts give you their projected timeline, and you send a plane off to beat it by several hours. how is that poor planning?

  17. I know a lot of time the airlines are stuck in a pickle.  Ideally if there’s a bad weather situation, I’d think the FAA would want to spread out the diversions to many airports without weather issues, but most planes don’t carry enough extra fuel because planes consume extra fuel to transport the extra weight.

    It sounds as if there was no ideal solution.  They diverted planes from airports that had impassible weather to airports that had barely negotiable weather.

    1. According to postings on this website, when it first started happening, planes are now carrying less fuel to save money, period. Perhaps planes can carry a bit more fuel in case they have to be diverted to a safe airport. Let’s see. which should they choose? Passenger safety and comfort or bottom line?

      1. Certainly there should be a certain bottom line.  Jet fuel costs several times what it did a decade ago.  There’s always a certain amount of reserve to make it a little bit longer, but putting in enough to travel an addition 800 miles means a lot to the bottom line.  Who’s going to pay for all that.  You and me?

        They were diverted to an airport where it was safe enough to land.  It wasn’t ideal, but ideal isn’t always possible when there are several dozen planes that have to be diverted.

  18. Holy Gee-whiz..there are certainly some very entitled people here…and those who compare being delayed on the tarmac to being a political prisoner need to have their heads examined, but then again, being stuck on a plane for a few hours with out food is so much more severe than being in jail…

    All sarcasm aside, it is not the airlines fault if the planes are routed to a facility that can not handle them, and in this instance, the weather is a major contributing factor to the delay…and for those who say that the airline should have just cancelled the flight in the 1st place because of the ‘possibility’ of inclement weather at the destination, well, can you just imagine the chaos at the departing airport when 1000+ passengers all try to get the airlines to put them on other flights or compensate them….or better yet, how many people would complain because the flight was cancelled and the airline wasn’t doing anything to help them…it’s a classic Catch-22 where both the airlines & the passengers are the victims…

  19. “The truth is, no law could have brought any of the planes back to the gate any faster in Hartford. ”

    Let’s fine-tune this statement, Chris.  It seems from your article that Sen Rockefeller’s bill, if it had already become law, could not have brought any of the Hartford planes back to the gate.  But this means that his bill is flawed and needs to be rewritten–NOT that it is metaphysically impossible ever to fix this problem. 

    As several other posters have already noted, a law should penalize the people who are responsible, and it shouldn’t punish those who aren’t.  If the air-traffic controllers are to blame, the law should require that THEY be fined.  If the airport is ultimately responsible, IT should pay the fine.  If the govt bureaucrats in customs are somehow at fault, then THEY should be the ones penalized.  And yes, IF it is indeed the fault of the airline, then they should pony up!  Writing a good bill can be tricky, but it’s not rocket-science (eons ago, when I was in my 20’s, I worked for Congress and so I can attest to this); the bill just has to take all these possibilities into account.

    If every entity which is involved in disembarkation is held legally responsible for their actions in situations like this, then SHAZAM! they will bust their necks to think outside the box and get these pax off the plane PRONTO!  Amazing what can happen, when there’s real accountability… and money at stake.

    1. The question is why do we need a law at all? How would a fine fix this problem? Wouldn’t a fine simply cause other problems? And, why should the government make money (earn fines) when the ones suffering from the delay don’t get anything?

      Talking about fines. We have a fine against holding and using a cell phone while driving. A lot of good that has done. Lot’s of people still do it.

      While you can prevent an airplane from departing (by canceling the flight) so it won’t be a tarmac statistic, there is not much you can do with an INBOUND aircraft. It’s gonna have to land somewhere and get deplaned. And when an airport’s capacity or services is maxed out or compromised, there is not much you can do. That’s the way service systems work. Congress cannot change the laws of physics or nature.

    2. You would have air traffic controllers fined for following procedure?

      I agree that it’s a lousy situation sometimes, but there has to be a point where you have to chalk it up to a bad situation where you can’t afford to staff for that once in ten years situation.

      What would you have done?  Perhaps a smallish airport needs to have excess staff on hand just in case planes are diverted?  Catering services need to prepare over a thousand extra meals just in case unanticipated passengers show up due to diversions?  Homeland security needs to keep and pay for extra customs agents on staff just in case a couple of international flights are diverted?

  20. Seems to me the ability to disembark in two of the examples you used here were the fault of the government (customs refusing to process the Paris flight) and the airport (refusing to allow them to come to a terminal).  Why are the airlines getting slammed with fines when they are not the ones at fault?

    When I hear of the government getting involved in doing something “for the good of the people” I am reminded of the end of Westworld, “Nothing can go wrong… go wrong… go wrong… go wrong…

  21. Chris, you said you interviewed everyone involved in these incidents, but I saw nothing from the passengers. Perhaps I missed it….

  22. It would seem to me that if passengers were safe to get on a plane, they should be safe to get off.  The feds also need to look at air traffic controller staffing to see enough of them are on duty.  The idea that bathrooms are all clogged and passengers can’t leave an aircraft is really disturbing.  I can just imagine how awful that would be. And I think Tony is right, it is the passengers that should get the compensation, otherwise it is just another tax.

  23. Why can’t the toilet tanks be emptied/unloaded. Shortage of food and water is one thing but overflowing sewer is something altogether much worse.
    I would rather have a clean floor than compensation.

    1. Sally, think of all airport systems like they are conveyor belts. They can only move so fast to deliver a certain level of output. You can’t speed them up beyond the capacity of the motor. You can and must slow them for safety reasons down during bad weather.

      You cannot just acquire logistics on a flip of a switch. There are lots of dependencies and delays. When problems occur, they tend to stack up and cause other problems. At some point the process is OUT OF CONTROL. That’s the way it works in real life.

  24. My husband was once stuck on a plane that was diverted to Palm Springs in the middle of the summer because of a thunderstorm several years ago.  It was 110 F outside and way over that inside.  There was no air conditioning inside the plane. They ran out of food and water pretty quickly.  Thankfully they were only on the ground for about 3 hours before they could get back in the air.  I am surprised nobody passed out from heat exhaustion.
    It’s only a matter of time before someone dies from being stuck on one of these planes either do to heat exhaustion in the summer, dehydration from lack of water, or due to a medical condition exasperated by 7 extra hours in a tin can.  These regulations may only affect a very small number of flights, but for the people suffering it’s a big deal.

  25. They’re still doing it, so something more must be done to get them to stop.  The process of getting people off a plane is not that complicated.  If they were told that there were 83 planes in front of them getting unloaded, that is still some indication that eventually they will get off.  I suspect that people were just *not” unloading them.  Put a snowplow in front of the busses and ramp trucks, drive up to the planes, and get them off.

  26. Polititions have not gotten a thing correct in Aviation since the air traffic controllers were all fired by the president decades ago. Sen Rockefeller’s health may be impairing his thought process on this one. I feel that once a plane is in line for take off, it is subject to it’s surroundings, most of the time, the air traffic controllers. Fine them! They have a union and governing body, oh yea, the US government. Once a flight is on the ground “ON TIME” an dcannot get thier gate, give them one in the competing airline’s area or go to an empty on an unused are. OR fine the airport, still not the pilot’s choice or error. Ailines in gerneral as well as TSA make traveling a chore rather than a pleasure, but this legistlation is garbage.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with you with one exception. The pilot, not air traffic control, make the choice when to push back. Under your plan, the FAA / Government would be responsible if a pilot pushed back knowing that it was going to be 5 hours before they could take off.

      If the airport accepts an inbound plane, they should be held responsible for the health and welfare of the occupants and not the pilot (one exception I would make to this is when the airline knowing sends a plane to a closed airport for safety reasons like falling from the sky without fuel)

  27. Chris, just thought you might like to know you made this morning’s ASTA Smartbrief email letter to travel agents dealing with the tarmac delays.  They highlight articles which travel agents should be aware of and read from outside sources, which they think are a good source of information for agents — so congrats! 

  28. @Chris: “The truth is, no law could have brought any of the planes back to the gate any faster in Hartford.” I disagree. Your story states that the airline requested permission to unload the passengers and keep them in one area of the terminal until they could be processed by customs, but that request was denied. The solution would be to pass a law stating that in cases like these, passengers have a right to be taken off the plane and at least spend their several hours waiting in the airport with access to water and bathrooms instead of on the plane.

    Of course, that’ll never happen since it puts the onus on a governmental agency to be reasonable, but it’s an idea…

  29. I live in a country where we deal with cold and snow all of the time.

    A normal person would be anxious to get people out of the planes quickly before the situation got worse.

    This whole situation of having people stranded on planes for hours is ridiculous beyond belief.  Every little town has a fire department.  Every stinkin airport should be able to evacuate planes.

    The United States put men on the moon, they should be able to figure out how not to leave planes on the tarmac when it snows.

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