Cap on tarmac waits might get off ground
By Helen Anders
Monday, September 07, 2009
It's been nearly three years since Kate Hanni sat for more than eight hours in an American Airlines MD-80 parked on the tarmac at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
She's still fuming.
"Every time I think about that plane, I get anxious and nervous," says Hanni, who lives in California's Napa Valley and was flying from San Francisco to Dallas on Dec. 29, 2006, when her plane and 15 others were diverted to Austin because of storms in Dallas.
That much-publicized experience prompted Hanni to launch the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights, whose primary objective has been legislation limiting the time travelers can be trapped in a grounded airplane. That effort might be about to bear fruit.
The U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would compel planes to unload passengers after three hours on the tarmac. The legislation gained momentum last month when a Continental Airlines regional flight out of Houston, run by ExpressJet, sat for more than five hours in Rochester, Minn.
U.S. Department of Transportation records show that from January to June of this year, 613 planeloads of passengers waited on the tarmac for more than three hours.
The National Business Travelers Association recently reversed its stance that the airlines should solve the problem themselves and is supporting the Senate bill.
"Enough is enough," the group's president, Kevin Maguire, said at the time.
Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said he agrees that it's unlikely the airlines will act unless Congress forces them to.
"I have testified since 1999 four times against congressional intervention, always saying that the airlines should be able to fix this problem and police themselves," Mitchell said. "The airlines are just not responding." Both this group and the National Business Travelers Association carry the clout of representing corporate travel bookers.
The airlines, represented by the Air Transport Association, oppose any law limiting tarmac waits, saying hard-and-fast rules would result in cancellations and massive stranding of passengers in airports.
Some passenger advocates say the Senate bill doesn't go far enough because it includes exceptions to the three-hour rule, which could be bypassed if a pilot thought he or she had a good chance of getting the plane airborne soon or if unloading passengers would jeopardize safety and security — a subjective call that would be made by the pilot or airline.
Others say the bill won't work because it puts mandates only on the airlines. When planes don't unload passengers, airlines often blame airport management, FAA regulations or Transportation Security Administration and customs policies.
"The airlines can't do it alone," says former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall, who plans to weigh in at a Sept. 22 hearing in Washington on the legislation. "Any solution must involve cooperation among the airlines, airports, the FAA, the TSA and customs." He said he thinks Congress should scrap the legislation and start over.
The Senate bill faces a battle, and not only on the passenger rights front. It is part of massive legislation reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration that also addresses such issues as air traffic control modernization, aircraft maintenance and labor negotiations.
But the recent Minnesota stranding has ratcheted up the rhetoric in favor of passage.
"You can't treat people like cattle on a cattle car," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said.
If the Senate does pass its bill, its wording will have to be reconciled with the House version, which says only that airlines should come up with contingency plans for dealing with tarmac delays. There is no time limit. Both the House and Senate bills would mandate that food, water and adequate restrooms be provided during the delays.
The FAA is operating under a temporary extension of its authorization, and that expires Sept. 30. Congress must either extend that authorization or pass a new bill by that date.
While the legislation is debated, the Department of Transportation is considering enacting its own rule that would require each airline, as part of its contract of carriage (the fine print on the ticket), to set its own limit on tarmac waits. Under the plan, which is still subject to revision, airlines could change those limits as often as they wanted but would face fines up to $27,500 for each transgression. Airlines would be in charge of tracking their own compliance.
Airlines say putting their plans into the contract of carriage could bring a flood of lawsuits. A decision on the rule is expected sometime this fall.
Even if the rule is enacted, Hanni says it would be meaningless because airlines would be policing themselves.
The push for passenger rights was born during one of the worst winter storms in Texas history. As thunderstorms parked over Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Hanni, her husband and their two sons, ages 11 and 21, were aboard one of 16 flights diverted to Austin, 14 of them American.
Most of these planes were back in the air after an hour or two, having found a window of calm air. But four of the American planes stayed parked, one for six hours, two for more than seven hours and one, Hanni's, for eight hours and 23 minutes, according to Austin-Bergstrom records.
Ten passengers whose ultimate destination was Austin were taken off the plane with mobile stairs, but the others were kept aboard in hopes of an imminent departure.
Shortly after 9 p.m., Hanni's flight did go to a gate. Hanni and her family flew to Dallas the next morning and, 57 hours after their journey began, eventually arrived at their destination, Mobile, Ala. By then, Hanni had decided to abandon her job in real estate and go after the airlines. Her nonprofit organization — its Web site is www.flyersrights.org — runs on private donations. She does not take a salary but reimburses herself for her expenses.
The family also filed a class-action suit against American Airlines, claiming false imprisonment. It is still pending in federal court in California. A similar case filed in Arkansas by one of the passengers stuck on another American Airlines plane on Dec. 26, 2006, was dismissed in April after a judge said that although the airline should have acted differently, it broke no laws.
American gave its stranded passengers $500 vouchers after the 2006 strandings. In last month's Minnesota incident, Continental gave passengers refunds and $200 vouchers.
Airlines have given various reasons for long waits. Usually, the airlines have said they were hopeful that planes could soon be on their way. Sometimes, there aren't enough gates available at the airport — or at least enough gates owned by the airline whose plane is stranded. Mobile stairs can be used, but FAA rules say ramp workers, who move those stairs, must stay indoors when lightning is near.
In the recent Minnesota case, ExpressJet said passengers couldn't get off because there were no security agents in the airport. TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley said it has no problem with airlines unloading passengers, even after security checkpoints are closed, as long as passengers stay within the secured area.
International flights diverted to airports without customs officers can't unload because the passengers re-entering the United States need to go through customs. That, Crandall said, needs to change.
"Let them off the airplane," he said. "This is common sense."
After the December 2006 incident, American Airlines established a policy to allow passengers to get off if a plane sits on the tarmac for more than four hours, assuming it can be done safely. United has a similar four-hour policy. Continental's policy is to let passengers deplane after three hours, and spokeswoman Julie King said partners such as ExpressJet are supposed to abide by it, but "that process broke down" in the Minnesota incident.
Airlines say their surveys show passengers prefer to wait out a delay rather than get off and risk having to compete for space on another flight.
Department of Transportation statistics show that taxi-out times — tarmac delays involving planes headed for the runway — dropped in 2008, to 1,231 strandings of more than three hours from 1,654 in 2007. But 67 of those were for more than five hours, compared with 45 strandings of more than five hours in 2007.
In the first six months of this year, there were 415 taxi-out delays of more than three hours. (Tarmac waits of diverted flights can't be compared with past years, because those figures were not tracked until last October.)
Airlines say that they're trying to cut down on delays but that a legislated trigger for letting passengers off will only strand travelers inside airports.
Hanni says no rule will work without a limit on tarmac delays. If the House version of the FAA bill emerges, she said, "I would have to oppose it."
Waiting to take off
Tarmac waits for all airlines from 2005 to present for flights that taxied out from the gate and then sat. Diverted planes are not included because they were not tracked until last October.
Year 3+ hours 5+ hours
2005 1,089 27
2006 1,341 37
2007 1,654 45
2008 1,231 67
2009 (to June) 415 10
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Who kept planes waiting
Tarmac waits of more than three hours for the first six months of 2009. These numbers include taxi-outs, taxi-ins, diversions and planes that waited and then had flights canceled:
Airline 3+ hrs % of flights
All Airlines 613 .021
Comair 44 .055
Delta 100 .046
United 72 .038
JetBlue 38 .038
US Airways 62 .030
American 66 .025
ExpressJet 37 .025
Mesa 27 .023
Northwest 30 .020
American Eagle 40 .018
Pinnacle 18 .013
AirTran 16 .011
Continental 16 .011
Frontier 4 .008
Atlantic Southeast 9 .006
Skywest 14 .005
Southwest 20 .001
Hawaiian 0 0
Alaska 0 0
Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics
2009 flights diverted to Austin
Month Diversions Waits of 3+ hours
January 7 0
February 2 0
March 36 3
April 36 1
May 33 4
No tarmac delays exceeded 5 hours.
Source: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport records