Administration officials promised Wednesday to make changes before the Christmas travel season in an effort to prevent airline passengers from suffering the nightmare of being trapped for hours on a tarmac with no way to reach an airport gate.
"We can move pretty quickly on this," Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt told reporters after hosting a forum with airlines, airports and government officials on ways to prevent a repeat of an October incident that left hundreds of passengers stranded in Hartford, Conn.
Twenty-eight planes — seven were large international flights — arrived unexpectedly at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 29 during a freak snowstorm. The planes were forced to divert because weather and equipment problems prevented them from landing at New York-area airports.
Many of the flights sat on the ground for hours — several for more than seven hours — before they could either refuel and depart or unload their passengers. The captain of JetBlue flight 504 begged for help to get his plane to a gate, saying passengers were becoming unruly and he had paraplegic and diabetic passengers who needed to get off.
Within the next week, the FAA will begin including airports in national and regional conference calls they hold with airlines several times a day to discuss problems that are affecting the flow of air traffic. The agency is also launching a hotline and a webpage for airports to alert the FAA and airlines of problems on the ground such as difficulties with as snow removal and de-icing equipment or a shortage of available gates, Babbitt said.
Much of the chaos during the Hartford incident could have been mitigated by better communication among airlines, airports and air traffic controllers, Babbitt said.
If airlines had known so many flights were diverting to Hartford, some probably would have sent their planes to other airports in Providence, R.I.; Albany, N.Y.; Allentown, Pa.; and Baltimore, transportation officials said. Bradley, a medium-size airport, has only 23 gates and typically handles few international flights, officials said.
"This wasn't anybody's fault necessarily," Babbitt said. "People just weren't aware of what other people were doing. That's what we're going to try to alleviate going forward."
A Transportation Department rule implemented in April 2010 limits tarmac delays to a maximum of three hours before airlines must allow passengers to get off the plane. Airlines that exceed the time limit can face fines of up to $27,500 per person. Although Babbitt's comments appeared to relieve airlines of responsibility for the Oct. 29 incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphasized that his department's investigations into each of the flights that exceeded the three-hour limit aren't yet complete.
Airlines say there are a lot of reasons for extended tarmac delays, most related to airport congestion created by poor weather. If planes are held at gates because poor weather prevents or slows departures, then incoming flights have trouble finding a free gate. Sometimes planes sitting for hours in line waiting to take off are unable to return to gates where new planes have taken their place. Customs and security officials won't allow passengers off international flights unless they have enough officials to process them or a secure place to hold them until they can be processed.
Airlines, which opposed the three-hour rule, say many of the delays are beyond their control. For example, one of the problems at Bradley was that there weren't enough U.S. Customs officials on duty to handle the influx of large international flights with hundreds of passengers. Indeed, the room Customs officials use at Bradley was far too small to accommodate all the passengers waiting to be processed that day, officials said.
The airport received 20 inches of snow during the storm, which marked the first time that area of Connecticut had received over an inch of snow in October in more than a century of record-keeping, a National Weather Service official told the forum.
The storm knocked out power to the airport several times during the day. Luggage belts quit working. Tugs that move planes out of the way couldn't get traction on the ice. Planes had trouble refueling and de-icing because of the power outages, preventing departures.
If a plane can't get de-iced, "you might as well just weld the aircraft to the ramp — it's not going anywhere," Babbitt said.
And if planes can't depart, there's no room to unload planes that have landed.
No one, including controllers, had a complete picture of what was happening, Babbitt told the forum.
"There is a lot of knowledge out there," he said. "If everyone had access to the whole picture, they wouldn't have continued to send planes to (Bradley)."
But FAA officials acknowledged they shared some responsibility for the episode as well. The agency was in the midst of a scheduled shutdown of navigation equipment for servicing at John F. Kennedy International Airport when visibility rapidly deteriorated and winds kicked up. Several industry officials questioned why FAA continued with the maintenance shutdown in light of the forecast storm, but LaHood said no one had anticipated a snowstorm that severe in October.
The problems were exacerbated when other FAA equipment at Kennedy and nearby Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey malfunctioned in freezing temperatures. Reports of wind shear limited the use of some runways, forcing changes in flight paths that decreased the number of planes that could land at Kennedy, Newark, LaGuardia Airport in New York and Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, which was closed for a time.
More than a dozen planes were diverted to Logan International Airport in Boston, but Logan had problems as well. One of the diverted planes was an Airbus A380, the world's largest commercial passenger plane. Logan, which doesn't normally serve A380s, had to close a runway for a time because there was nowhere else to put the supersize plane. Tarmac space to accommodate planes at Logan was further limited by a military flight that happened to bring soldiers wounded in Libya to the U.S. for medical care that day. Logan officials said they had to make room on the tarmac for 10 ambulances.
An FAA review also found that it wasn't necessarily obvious to controllers that an unusually large number of flights were being diverted to Bradley, agency officials said.
Among FAA's proposals to airlines and airports for better information-sharing:
- Creating a webpage monitored by FAA where airports can continuously update information. Airline dispatchers could check the site before deciding where they want to send flights unable to land at their intended destination. Airlines, rather than controllers, decide which airports they want to send diverted flights to based on factors such as personnel and equipment at the airport.
For example, if a plane spends too much time on the ground, the flight crew may exceed the maximum number of hours they're allowed to work in a single day under FAA safety regulations. In those cases, airlines have to find another flight crew and get them to the plane before the flight can depart.
- Expand FAA-hosted teleconferences with airlines to include airports. FAA and airline officials exchange information in teleconferences each day about weather-related and other difficulties affecting the flow of air traffic around the country, but airport officials generally don't join those conversations.
- Create a better system for air traffic controllers to identify diverted flights. While special handling would not be provided based sole on diversion status, it would heighten situational awareness about the potential for congestion on the ground at airport and for planes in the air to run low on fuel.