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.

“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.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by InsureMyTrip

It’s simple. InsureMyTrip finds you the right travel insurance plan, every time. InsureMyTrip is the authority on travel insurance. Rated A+ for travel insurance by the Better Business Bureau. All travelers that purchase a policy through  InsureMyTrip have access to Anytime Advocates® for claims assistance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by SCOTTeVEST

An innovative apparel brand for people who want easy access to everything they need. For those who live for every second, SCOTTeVEST lets you maximize your life. Ditch the carry-on bag and pick up a  SCOTTeVEST.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.