In last week's blog, I asked for some inside airline information on what passengers should reasonably expect with regard to DOT's three-hour ramp stranding rule. And brother did I get it, via e-mail from pilots not wanting to post in the blog's forum response. I also heard from pilots and crews with direct knowledge of the incident that resulted in a $900,000 fine against American Eagle for keeping passengers trapped in an airplane for more than three hours.
Bottom line: The inside view seems to be that the three-hour rule, however misconceived and ill-applied, doesn't necessarily put airlines into impossible situations and, at least in the case of the Eagle fine, could have been avoided. But thanks to several missteps by the airline, it wasn't.
The crew that contacted me said some things went right and some things went wrong, but in the end, there was no clear reason why the incident couldn't have been avoided. They gave their ops people high marks for keeping all of the crews fully informed and up to date as the situation with too many airplanes and too few gates unfolded. They were credited with moving the airplanes quickly into gates as they reached the 2.5-hour mark. It could have been a lot worse.
And the ops guys kept at it, eventually gaining permission to use at least seven gates that were open the entire time, while passengers in 15 airplanes and their crews stewed in place. Those open gates eventually allowed the crews to offload their passengers and ultimately resolved the situation.
What went wrong is more troubling. Although the crew that contacted us said dispatch was fully aware of the developing mess on the ground, it continued to release airplanes into O'Hare. Had dispatch merely ground stopped those airplanes for awhile, the situation would have been far less chaotic and might have been avoided entirely. To me, this doesn't sound like an airline put into an impossible situation by an unreasonable rule. It sounds more like a rigid dispatch system that was slow, unwilling or unable to respond to the dynamic situation and only made it worse.
The pilots said the most inexcusable aspect of the Eagle incident was that no contingency plan was in place to handle the inevitability of gate congestion at O'Hare and other airports. Eagle crews were told, for example, that it wasn't possible to deplane passengers via airstairs in the alleys, yet two other airlinesSkywest and others operating under United airlinesdo this routinely. Why didn't managers arrange this sort of contingency ahead of time, as other airlines have? And why weren't arrangements to use the empty gates in an emergency made ahead of the fact? Further, Eagle and American may or may not have had enough gate agents to handle the flights, but because of scheduling and manning policies, flights that had an available gate still had to wait until a gate agent could be found. They've since corrected that manning policy.
Personally, I remain ambivalent about the three-hour rule. I'm not sure if it's a good idea or not. But it's bogus to say that in the era of non-regulated cheaper fares, this is what you should expect as a passenger. That's just a lazy excuse for bad customer service and inept management and it blames the customer. With planning and aforethought, trapping passenger in airplanes can probably be avoided except in extreme circumstances caused by unforeseen weather and I think it's fair to consider this in adjudicating fines.
A certain level of occasional chaos is inevitable, but there's no reason airlines shouldn't have in place contingencies to remove passengers trapped on ramps for as much as seven hours. Airport management should be expected to assist. After all, that's why they are there. It's equally bogus for airports to lay these problems off entirely on the airlines.