Jessica Hill  /  AP
In this Oct. 30, 2011 file photo, stranded passengers rest on cots inside at Bradley International Airport, a day after a snowstorm in Windsor Locks, Conn.
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updated 11/6/2011 1:57:09 PM ET 2011-11-06T18:57:09

The headlines were brutal: "126 Trapped on Plane 7 Hours." "Another Fiasco at Bradley."

Passengers on at least four planes sat on the tarmac at Connecticut's Bradley Airport for seven hours or more Oct. 29 when the autumn snowstorm hit the Northeast, marking the second time in less than two years that Bradley has made news because passengers were stranded on the tarmac.

Story: At least 4 jets strand Conn. passengers for hours

Air traffic controllers diverted 28 planes to Bradley because of the storm. Five were able to refuel and take off.

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For those stuck at Bradley, what waited for them when they deplaned was worse in some ways: Stuck in an airport overnight without heat, no access to luggage carrying clean clothes and toiletries, no security.

"The airport was very, very cold and there didn't seem to be anyone in charge," said Elizabeth Halasz of Miami, a former flight attendant who was aboard the JetBlue flight.

The debacle raised anew questions about whether the smaller regional airport is adequately prepared for future storms, when more planes will surely be diverted. And the delays touched off more national debate, this time about the need for improved communication between airports and airlines, the type of conversations that determine when passengers can disembark.

It's far from the kind of publicity Connecticut officials were seeking for the state's flagship airport, located about halfway between the capital of Hartford and Springfield, Mass., as they work to overhaul operations with a new airport authority and attract more business.

"All bad publicity is not good. So does it hurt Hartford as an airport? Of course it does, because people will try to avoid it if they can," said state Sen. Gary LeBeau, a Democrat from East Hartford who's co-chairman of the General Assembly's Commerce Committee.

"It's the opposite of what we want, which is good marketing."

The first problem for Bradley came in June 2010, when about 300 people aboard a diverted trans-Atlantic flight, originally from London to Newark, were marooned for four hours. Some fell ill from the heat. The delay prompted calls to add international travel to a federal rule limiting how long airlines can keep passengers on board.

Last weekend, one JetBlue flight from Florida and headed to New Jersey was stranded at Bradley for more than seven and a half hours. It seemed as if the airport lacked enough people on the ground to get the passengers off the plane, said Elizabeth Halasz of Miami, a former flight attendant who was aboard the plane.

Stranded JetBlue pilot pleaded for help from airport

While the experience of being trapped aboard the plane more nearly eight hours was difficult, Halasz said the saga worsened once passengers left the plane. They had to camp out on cots inside the airport, which had no heat. Elderly passengers, she said, were freezing, and no one had access to their luggage until early the next morning to pull out extra clothing.

The only restaurants open were a McDonald's and a Dunkin' Donuts. Both, she said, only accepted credit cards because they had no cash to make change. She said there was also no security, prompting Halasz to drag her cot to hallway outside a hotel that's attached to the airport, thinking that would be the safest place to stay.

"For the elderly, they were very frightened," she said.

State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, a Democrat from Rocky Hill who's co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee, said he plans to call a legislative hearing to review what happened.

"Something went wrong, there's no doubt about it. Seven hours on a plane, stranded there, is not a healthy situation. ... I'm not happy about this," he said.

The diversion of so many flights by federal air traffic controllers was "an unprecedented set of circumstances," said Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart.

"No one can predict situations like this, I know that," Guerrera said, "I don't want to be a Monday morning quarterback. But the point is, things like this do happen and ... we should be prepared for emergency situations."

A new airport authority was created this year to oversee operations at Bradley and try to attract more flights, carriers and businesses, but it doesn't take control until January. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said officials at the authority will examine the incident.

Malloy, who trekked out to the airport the night passengers were stranded to hand out cots, points out that extraordinary circumstances were at play.

"Everyone take a deep breath," he said. "The vast majority of people were grateful to be safe."

It's not clear who's at fault.

The airlines determine when passengers are allowed to get off the plane, said Debby McElroy, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, an association of the world's airports. Under federal rules, the airline is supposed to offer passengers the opportunity leave no later than three hours on the tarmac for domestic flights, four hours for international ones. It's the role of the airport, she said, to offer help when the airline makes that decision.

Airlines typically handle ground operations, too, she said. And airports usually don't own air stairs and tow bars — things the JetBlue pilot ultimately sought help from Bradley's control tower staff to obtain, according to a recording of their communications.

The process becomes more complicated when an airline diverts a plane to an airport where the airline has no presence. (JetBlue does regularly fly to Bradley.) McElroy said there needs to be better communication between airlines and airports about their contingency plans, especially when a flight is diverted.

Both JetBlue and Bradley have declined to comment beyond prepared statements, pending investigations. JetBlue apologized to customers. Halasz said she ultimately received a refund and two free round-trip flights, after initially receiving $100 in compensation.

JetBlue apologizes to stranded fliers

Smaller airports like Bradley need to have the ability to turn away flights without having to close down the airport, McElroy said.

"The airport needs to have the ability to say no more; resources are strained right now," she said. "The airports should not be set up for failure, either by the airlines or the FAA."

There are efforts under way to put together guidebooks for airports on the best practices for handling emergency situations and irregular operations, said Pam Keidel-Adams, managing director for the airport consulting firm Landrum & Brown, based in Phoenix. She said the delays at Bradley highlight how there are national issues with how airlines and airports deal with emergencies.

"It's an airport and an airline issue," she said. "You just can't blame one or the other. It has to be more coordination."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Recording details 7-hour flight delay

  1. Closed captioning of: Recording details 7-hour flight delay

    >>> federal investigators want to know what went wrong at hartford 's bradley international airport during saturday's snowstorm. the airport was inundated with diverted flights, many from new york and passengers on a handful of jetblue planes waited hour after hour with overflowing toilets no, food and no water. tom costello covers aviation and joins us. tom, good morning.

    >> reporter: ann, good morning. the d.o.t. requires airlines to get passengers off planes if they've been stranded for three hours, four hours if it's an international flight. you mix together a lot of snow, a small airport, two dozen diverted flights, not enough people, it's a recipe for a nightmare in hartford saturday.

    >> hold on to the railing.

    >> reporter: this wasn't supposed to happen again, a frustrated jetblue pilot pleading with ground cruise in hartford for help saturday night.

    >> is there any way you can get a tug and a towbar out here to us and get us towed somewhere to a gate or something? i don't care, take us anywhere.

    >> reporter: with babies crying in pitch black , he, his crew and passengers sat stranded on the tarmac for hours, no food, no water, no working toilets.

    >> i have a paraplegic on board that needs to come off, i have a diabetic on here that has to have an issue.

    >> reporter: for several hours they waited at times tempers flared. when police arrived, applause.

    >> a woman was kind of losing it, having a panic attack, people kind of walking up and down the aisles very frustrated.

    >> reporter: in all, three jetblue flights diverted from new york were stranded at hours for hartford . a diverted american airlines flight from paris also sat for seven hours because there were no customs officers on duty at hartford . a bigger passenger nightmare in 2007 led to the creation of a passenger bill of rights and tarmac delay rules that went into effect 18 months ago. the rules require airlines to provide food, water and access to working tie toilets after a two-hour delay and allow passengers off the plane after three hours. airlines that violate the rule face a fine of $27,500 per passenger. the government says those rules work, so what happened on saturday?

    >> although the airlines appeared to have made a bet with an act of god that they could get off the ground in three hours or less after they diverted, the airport was completely unresponsive until later in the day, like in the evening, 9:30 in the evening.

    >> reporter: bradley airport says it accepted 23 diverted flights "and our resources were stretched to the limit." 1,500 passengers spent the night on cots in the terminal. with winter around the corner the faa is looking into avoiding a repeat of this. jetblue says it is refunding the tickets. the faa is investigating. if it finds jetblue liable it could face hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in fines.

    >> tom costello thank you so

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