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Tarmac flap renews call for international rules

A 4-hour stretch spent by travelers parked in a plane renewed calls to add international travel to a new rule limiting how long airlines can keep passengers trapped on the tarmac.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A hot, dark and miserable four-hour stretch spent by hundreds of travelers parked in a diverted trans-Atlantic plane renewed calls Wednesday to add international travel to a months-old federal rule limiting how long airlines can keep passengers trapped on the tarmac.

All of about 300 passengers marooned late Tuesday and early Wednesday at Bradley International Airport outside Hartford, Conn., finally reached their original destination, New Jersey's Newark Liberty International Airport, by mid-afternoon, piling off buses and describing chaos and desperation in the cabin as temperatures and tempers rose.

Some passengers fell ill from the heat as the London-to-Newark Virgin Atlantic flight lingered on the tarmac, and at least one had to be administered oxygen, said David Cooper, a London resident trying to get to his job at a summer camp. The airline confirmed some travelers needed medical treatment but did not say how many.

"Everyone was beginning to get a bit crazy; a few people got fevers, they were really struggling," Cooper said. "Basically they cracked. I guess these things do happen, and this time they happened to us."

A federal three-hour limit on tarmac strandings went into effect in April, eight months after 47 passengers on a Continental Express flight were stranded overnight on a runway in Rochester, Minn.

The limit doesn't apply to international flights and overseas airlines like Britain's Virgin Atlantic, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently solicited comments on whether it should. Federal officials will investigate whether the Connecticut stranding violated any rules.

"The events reported overnight in Connecticut reinforce my belief that passengers have rights and are entitled to fair treatment when they fly," LaHood said in a statement Wednesday.

The airline issued a statement Wednesday thanking passengers for their patience, apologizing for any inconvenience and offering vouchers for ground transportation and hotels. It was considering offering "some sort of credit" on tickets, said Chris Rossi, Virgin Atlantic vice president for North America.

Tuesday's flight began inauspiciously when it was delayed for more than an hour at London's Heathrow Airport. Storms then diverted it to Bradley, though some passengers said they weren't told where the plane was heading or why.

The plane sat on the tarmac from around 8:20 p.m. to 1 a.m., passengers said, as the temperature inside the plane rose and darkness permeated the cabin. Travelers said they were offered water but no food.

The temperature outside was no higher than the low 70s, but the weather was very humid. Virgin said it was checking into complaints that the air conditioning did not run while the plane was parked.

"After a while people panicked; people started shouting, getting more abusive," Luke McNorton said as he left one of the buses that shuttled passengers to Newark. "It got a little scary at times; you thought people might get violent."

New Jersey resident Russell Homasi, returning from visiting friends in London, said that as the plane sat in Connecticut, passengers were told it had been refueled, then were told there was a problem and it couldn't leave. Virgin was checking into reports of mechanical issues.

Paramedics treated a few passengers, said Ken Cast, an airport operations specialist.

Several passengers said that after being allowed off the flight, they had to wait three or four hours to get through customs.

Bradley's only regular international passenger flights are to Canada, and Virgin spokeswoman Janine Doy said the airport had to call customs and immigration officials back to the airport Tuesday night to process the passengers. The airline was forced to keep people on the plane, she said.

"It was a situation that was beyond our control," Doy said.

A Bradley airport spokesman, John Wallace, said customs workers were at the airport within an hour of being called.

"Everyone did the best they could under the circumstances," Wallace said. "The process to do clearance when you have 300 people is going to take a while, plus their luggage."

Consumer advocates have pleaded with the Transportation Department to include international flights in the three-hour limit, said passenger rights advocate Kate Hanni, but were told that wasn't possible because the department didn't have data to support such a move.

International carriers have opposed proposals to require they report long tarmac delays and other consumer-related information to the government.

Ken Quinn, former general counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration, said extending the three-hour limit and other consumer protections to foreign carriers could lead to retaliation against U.S. airlines by other nations.

"The Transportation Department is rapidly nearing the edge of its authority to mandate consumer protections on foreign airlines," said Quinn, whose law firm represents several airlines. "This is really a matter between Virgin Atlantic and its customers, who can vote with their pocketbooks."

Neither the rule that went into effect in April nor the one proposed this month would require airlines to keep air conditioning running while planes are sitting on runways, although consumer advocates have urged that, Hanni said.

Lowy reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Dave Collins in Hartford, Conn., contributed to this report.