Ramp Delays: I Got Educated

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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 airlines—Skywest and others operating under United airlines—do 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.

Comments (18)

I fly the MD-80 which is equipped with a stairway. I plan to use that stairway if necessary to deplane passengers. I know many aircraft are not equipped with stairs anymore and are forced to depend on outside help to deplane passengers. This puts the responsibility on airline management to make that possible. I think part of the problem is lack of ingenuity by local airline management and lack of planning for these events. The threat of fines worked for American in Austin. They have a good system for diversions there now.

Posted by: John Lill | November 21, 2011 7:42 AM    Report this comment

I do believe that the US$900.000.00 fine is to small because with all the money they are making from all kind of feed, we should get a much better service from then, job well done by the DOT.

Posted by: leo cordero | November 21, 2011 7:43 AM    Report this comment

There is always a way to fix these things...lack of imagination and not caring for the customers seems to be the biggest factor. A way to keep the customers calmer and happier: give the entire fine to the passengers!

Posted by: RW speer | November 21, 2011 9:12 AM    Report this comment

I really don't see how you can miss that the current airline model is nothing more than a race to the bottom. With baggage fees, charging for crap food and now over in the UK Ryanair charges you to use the lavatory ! The nickel and dime games continue to cheapen and demean the entire experience. Apparently you have not yet ridden on Spirit Airlines. Give them a try and get back to us.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 21, 2011 9:20 AM    Report this comment

Why the hell do they need a "gate agent" to allow people to get OFF the plane...they've certainly been security and otherwise cleared already. I can't help thinking the TSA is behind this fustercluck to some degree.

Posted by: Karl Schneider | November 21, 2011 10:03 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Karl Schneider | November 21, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

I see airlines as being somewhat between private companies and utilities. They makeup our national air transportation system. They should have responsibilities that go beyond safety to include reliability as well.

I know that weather can overstress the 'system', but specific regulations could be enacted to make that system more robust to inevitable disruptions.

The 'market' had a chance to fix this on its own and failed. Air transport is too important to allow it to remain in the current state.

Posted by: David White | November 21, 2011 3:41 PM    Report this comment

I don't fly any aircraft that has to worry about gates, however, I do know that anytime the government gets their grimy hands on something, it will turn out to be worse. Now with this threat of more fines from our government, Airlines will be more likely to just cancel a flight rather than to risk the fine. So who wins here....certainly not the passenger wanting to make a 2 or 3 hour flight. You cannot drive that kind of distance in any reasonable amount of time. Yes, thanks to the government, you get screwed more so. Passengers already have the ability to make companies change their behavior. If you get bad service, then you buy from a competitor but after you write a letter to the CEO and say why you were not happy with a 3 hour ground delay. We, the people, already have to tools at our disposal to make airlines think about the inconveniences of commercial flying but we always give up that responsibility and we let the government decide. So, the next time your flight is cancelled because of large delays, thank the government and blame yourself.

Posted by: Rick Crose | November 21, 2011 3:44 PM    Report this comment

Re the issue of paying for nav data...why do we have to update nav data every 28 days...why not 56 days...or even longer. Changing the time increment would cut the cost and save money. Why not do it?

Posted by: ED LIVERMORE | November 21, 2011 8:35 PM    Report this comment

I continually find it astounding that a commentary raising real questions that are not always easily answered, such as Paul's, can elict such ill-informed or blindly ideological diatribes get sent to this blog. For every complex and difficult question there is a simple answer, and it is usually wrong. In this case Paul, I think your words are right on.

This delay issue can be managed by the airlines. The three hour rule will have more impact on getting them to respond that passenger complaint, which have not done it in the past.

Posted by: CHRISTOPHER MOON | November 21, 2011 10:27 PM    Report this comment

Chris Moon: What the hell is complex and difficult about unused empty gates and nobody can figure out how to get folks off a stationary airplane? You have it bass ackward, the problem is simple, the "solutions" that have been unsuccessfully tried are what are convoluted and complicated. Talk about an ill-informed diatribe...sheesh.

Posted by: Karl Schneider | November 22, 2011 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Has Southwest been involved in any of these "incidences"? I genuinely can't recall ever hearing of one. Yet Southwest makes money, and they don't charge for bags, and they are pleasant to fly with. If Southwest can manage to not make the news for something like this why can't the other airlines?

My point is that the problem is solvable to some extent by the airlines. But in my opinion, a well-integrated solution will involve ATC, and TSA, and airport managements, and the airlines working together to make departure and arrival work more consistently and predictably when the going gets tough.

Posted by: STEPHEN EGOLF | November 23, 2011 7:23 AM    Report this comment

If the aiport management is culpable for not aleviating the situation, then it should be fined also. In an emergency, arpt mgt should have ability to commandeer gates, even if leased by a another airline.

Posted by: Claude Wagner | November 23, 2011 11:51 AM    Report this comment

@leave blank: yes that's true but the airlines don't "own" those gates, and their right to prevent their use by others in need should not trump those of paying passengers and of course the PR coup that a carrier would achieve by letting it be known that they were allowing the competition to use their facilities would be enormous. I'm not sure the bean counters know about those things, though.

Posted by: Karl Schneider | November 23, 2011 4:40 PM    Report this comment

"Eagle crews were told, for example, that it wasn't possible to deplane passengers via airstairs in the alleys," That is exactly what American Eagle does everyday at LAX. I have walked from the plane, across the ramp and into T4.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | November 28, 2011 12:09 PM    Report this comment

Interestingly in an on-air interview today (11/29) on CNBC former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall said that in his opinion deregulation of the airline industry has FAILED.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 29, 2011 9:17 AM    Report this comment

The airlines are intentionally overloading the system. So as soon as something interferes with the airlines (VFR only) scheduling (ie, weather) the whole system backs up. It is my understanding that the DOT will allow only so many times an individual flight to be cancelled. Hopefully this will make the airlines rethink how they schedule flights.

Posted by: matthew wagner | December 2, 2011 6:17 PM    Report this comment

These things happen because no ONE person has the power to do anything about it - if ONE person was responsible and had the authority to order use of airstairs or open and empty gates then there is zero problem because during irregular ops that person has the ability to do something about it, coordinate it and understand what is happening with the big picture. It is a management failure and management should pay the price.

Posted by: Joe Farrell | December 5, 2011 3:56 PM    Report this comment

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