Ramp Delays: Educate Us

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I need a little help here from our airline brethren, of whom there are many reading AVweb. I've been parsing news stories about this week's $900,000 fine against American Eagle for keeping passengers shut in airplanes on the ramp for more than three hours. DOT wanted to get the airlines' attention and it sure did.

Unfortunately, it could very well be that hapless airline passengers will be taking it in the shorts as a result. A recent Government Accountability Office report found the imposition of the rule a little over a year ago coincided with an unusual spike in flight cancellations. It other words, rather than strand passengers on the ramp and risk a fine, the airlines are just refusing to fly them at all. It's as if the passengers are being thrown over the side in a spat between the airlines and DOT. At this point, the phrase "customer service" has long since faded into the distance. Passengers dwell in the Village of the Damned.

Call me crazy, but can't the airlines figure this out? For all you pilots and dispatchers, why is that an airline like Eagle would send 15 airplanes into O'Hare knowing full well the gates aren't available and probably won't be for hours? I understand that between weather, flight delays and schedules, this is a complex, dynamic environment. Sometimes, you have to launch airplanes on the come.

But is it utterly unreasonable to expect the airline or the airport to have some means of extracting passengers stuck for hours on end? Are the TSA's onerous regulations a factor? Is it block scheduling? The Jet Blue incident at Bradley last month—7 ½ hours—was an especially egregious example. Personally, my record is 2 ½ hours, which I can do standing on my head. Four hours? No thanks.

So what should a passenger reasonably expect here? Educate me.

Comments (74)

They should expect that they will get what they paid for.......If you want $99 fares, you will get $99 worth of service.

In the "good old days" airlines had adequate staff, spare GSE (Ground Support Equipment) including airstairs, and spare gates to accomidate "off scheduled operations" so that customers would not even notice. There were even spare pilots and aircraft on "Hot Reserve" waiting on the ramp to wisk folks away in the event of a delay.

All of those things went out the window after deregulation, and the subsequent advent of "hub and spoke" where airlines cramp as many aircraft into the airport at the same time, as physically possible. Having MBA's that only care about the quarterly results doesn't help either.

All you need is a bit of weather, and a couple of mechanicals and the whole shooting match can go into a tailspin.

Personally I am surprised that it doesn't fall apart more often. You can credit the underpaid folks on the ground and in the air for that. Without them we would be in a pickle.

BTW - Airports typically do not want to get involved in airline operational issues, lest they get tagged with being the responsible party in the event of a negative outcome.

Posted by: DAVID COLEMAN | November 15, 2011 2:44 PM    Report this comment

Remember, too, that many so-called regional aircraft conduct flights over 4 and up to 5:30 in length. Destination can be fine at lift-off and a mess at arrival. And no airline will order an enroute aircraft to stop and wait, or cancel a closer-in flight that can make it to destination.
Once the first domino falls (first flights in the morning), dispatchers will keep them falling if they can. Pilots may try to inject some common sense, but "we don't have the big picture."

Posted by: Peter Buckley | November 15, 2011 10:38 PM    Report this comment

I've been on jets twice, sweating out the three hour rule, hoping we would get airborne before going back to th gate, timing out th crew, and getting stuck in the airport for two days because of the resulting chaos that fills airplanes until the backlog can be worked out. We made both flights by less than fifteen minutes. I would much rather sit on the taxiway for a half hour more and make it home than go back to a terminal in chaos.

The DOT mandated massive fines that make non-compliance more expensive than canceling the flight and losing the revenue by a factor of ten. Cancellations have naturally increased by a huge amount, but DOT won't acknowledge that, or tries to minimize it, but thousands of additional flights have been cancelled and the passengers left back in the terminal with no hotels to spend the night on their own nickel.  There was an academic study last year that proved this, but DOT "disputed" it in a statement. They didn't disprove the facts, they just issued a statement.

The problem is that DOT has mandated fines, but hasn't mandated changes to security regulations or airport facilities that would allow passengers to leave jets via stairs to walk to terminals. The Hartford situation was a classic case. Weather diverts, many because northeastern US airports couldn't clear runways or handle arrivals, resulted in jets holding trying to get into JFK with every available divert field full and no means at the airport to deplane passengers.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 16, 2011 5:04 AM    Report this comment

There were international arrivals from foreign carriers stuck on the ramp, flights that may have departed twelve hours before severe weather developed. In DOT's mind, every airline in the world should have separate facilities and staffing contracts to get passengers deplaned at airports that might see one of their airplanes once every ten years.  The problem is that due to intense competition and the need to be efficient, every facility is already maxxed out. There aren't any gates and the airport or regulations won't allow or provide transportation from airplane to terminal. TSA doesn't help with security to walk people across a frozen ramp (evidently, terrorist lurk on planes diverted by a snow storm). There is no remedy other than cancellations, or paying fines that go primarily to the government, not to the inconvenienced passengers, nor will they be spent for the infrastructure to handle deplanments, or ATC upgrades, or deicing facilities that might mitigate delays.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 16, 2011 5:06 AM    Report this comment

It's a huge unfunded mandate, where government rules at one agency (EPA-deicing, TSA-security) can result in fines paid to another government agency (DOT). You can bet that the American Eagle fine will result in more of an incentive for airlines to cancel. That money won't be available to fund facilities to get people off of jets, it will just strand customers in terminals overnight, with closed restaurants, overflowing bathrooms, and a filthy carpet for a bed. It will snowball, and ripple for days because the fines are too large to risk. This is what happens when you punish airlines for trying to get customers to their destinations.

Contact Michael Boyd at aviationplanning.com for more info, he is one of the few analysts that understand and are willing to risk the wrath of the agencies causing this mess by telling the truth about the DOT policy.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 16, 2011 5:07 AM    Report this comment

There is more to this, and it is related to our pet subject : user fees. Airlines are taxing the system by flying in waves, causing spikes in activity at already congested airports. That's how they can efficiently run hub&spoke ops. In many cases, they will do so with near-empty feeder flights, just to put pressure on competitors or for other strategic reasons (slots requirements,...). They can, and will, at times cancel these flights if loads are too low. Passengers were suffering flt cancellations before these new rules. The delay rules are thus also intended to force airlines into a new way of operating. They would need to be efficient with their choice of flights, so as not to risk delays. They had better not schedule more flights than they can handle. They must plan more selectively. In most airline rethoric, only part of the story is told, and their own responsability is brushed aside. If they could run their operations with less "fat", the ATC system could be scaled to handle a lesser peak capacity. It is this high peak capacity that leads to high user fees. That peak capacity is an airline demand, and thus they should bare the costs, not GA. Hence, this delay rule is an instrument in the war against user fees.

Posted by: Peter De Ceulaer | November 16, 2011 5:40 AM    Report this comment

As a Reagan Era Republican it's hard for me to say this but the bottom line is simple - BRING BACK REGULATION !!! The end product will be completely CONSISTENT ONCE AGAIN. With a regulated airline industry YOU control the level of airline service. Want more leg-room fine - make it part of the regulation. Want the nickel and dime games for every little bit of BASIC service stop - fine make it part of the regulation. In almost every instance I am not a fan of government interference in business but this is one case where it is QUITE OBVIOUSLY NEEDED.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 16, 2011 6:12 AM    Report this comment

(Part 1)
What is the fuss about? Everyone wanted de-regulation and here we have what the market produces.

Those that worship at the alter of the "free market" should not complain. You have your $99.00 tickets and the market cares not a wit about anything except how to produce that fare. It will not allocate any resources to accommodate less than normal disruptions. Non-regular operations do not occur frequently enough for the market (read: MBAs and the 1%) to account (both operationally and economically).

We all know that disruptions will occur, but the planning departments cannot predict with any accuracy when they will occur. The system (as the market allows it) will only permit the thinnest level of coverage that allows for a full schedule to be covered on an "average" day. That is how the market dictates its resources. All revenue above the minimum necessary to cover an "average" day, the market demands it flow to the holders of capital, i.e., shareholders/management/creditors.

That the public demands "something" be done when the market allows (by design) customers to be severely inconvenienced is a paradox. On the one hand the customer wants low fares, on the other, the customer wants (nay, demands) a [near] perfect system. The public cannot have it both ways.


Posted by: JEFFERY DARNALL | November 16, 2011 6:56 AM    Report this comment

(Part 2)
As an airline pilot I know that cancellations are up following the 3-hour rule. Heck, anyone of above average intelligence can deduce that when you make it financially painful for the market to allow 3+ hour delays, the market will do what it takes (increase cancellations rather than risk fines) to minimize the pain.

The catch is that the public is having its own financial struggle, so that there is no measurable financial penalty, imposed by the market, on those airlines that have left passengers stranded. Their next flight is booked on whatever airline has the cheapest fare.

So there you have it, in this perverse market driven system, when you demand convenience, reliability, and low costs - the market will allow you to have - maybe - two out of three.


Posted by: JEFFERY DARNALL | November 16, 2011 6:57 AM    Report this comment

I wonder if the folks calling for the return of regulation have considered the wave of layoffs of airline staff and pilots that would inevitably follow?

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | November 16, 2011 7:50 AM    Report this comment

How do you figure ? Obviously you don't remember what the staffing was like back in the days of regulation. Starting in the next fourteen months my airline alone will be losing one pilot EVERY EIGHTEEN HOURS due to retirements. Ask yourself this - how does the replacement pipeline look ?

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 16, 2011 8:52 AM    Report this comment

Layoffs also ticket prices. I am guessing ticket prices would rise to $2000 for most domestic tickets. Deregulation was a major win for the traveling public

Posted by: Mike Doherty | November 16, 2011 8:53 AM    Report this comment

The inability to deplane on buses seems to be an issue here as well. A lot of the problem would clear up with cheaper airports using buses.

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 16, 2011 9:02 AM    Report this comment

"Deregulation was a major win for the traveling public"
Really, how's that working out so far ?

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 16, 2011 9:05 AM    Report this comment

Well, clearly it's working out very well. Tickets are cheap and you (and your luggage) get to where you want to go when you're supposed to get there about 75% of the time.

Despite the newsworthy exceptions, it's a very good system.

Posted by: Brian Veazey | November 16, 2011 9:37 AM    Report this comment

There isn't any problem, we as a traveling public are getting exactly what we have voted for with our wallets. Rock bottom airfares equal rock bottom service. Franky I'm amazed that the planes aren't falling out of the air. My personal solution is to avoid commercial air travel if at all possible. When I have to go commercial I try to go at off peak hours and resign myself to the equivalent of a third-world bus ride.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 16, 2011 10:07 AM    Report this comment

There isn't any problem, we as a traveling public are getting exactly what we have voted for with our wallets. Rock bottom airfares equal rock bottom service. Franky I'm amazed that the planes aren't falling out of the air. My personal solution is to avoid commercial air travel if at all possible. When I have to go commercial I try to go at off peak hours and resign myself to the equivalent of a third-world bus ride.

Posted by: Richard Montague | November 16, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

The Europeans manage to deplane many passengers by bus. Most of the times I've been there, it seemed that every airplane with integral stairs stopped on a ramp and was met by a bus. Bigger, overseas flights went to the jetway gates.

Regulation is not the answer. The new rules and fines actually subvert the marketplace and don't allow the market to drive to the right answer.

Posted by: Jim Ward | November 16, 2011 10:22 AM    Report this comment

We certainly don't need to go back to the 'good old days' of full regulation when airliners flew half full because nobody but the rich could afford to fly. What's next, do you want to turn the entire telephone system back to AT&T?

The current rule is sensible. Airlines need to add the cost of supporting the stranded jet contingency into their ticket prices. The TSA needs to help with this. Fixing this problem isn't rocket science, even the dim blubs in the government and airline management can figure this out.

I personally have my own stranded pax rule. If I'm trapped in a parked airplane for more than three hours I'm going to open a door and exit via the slides.

Posted by: Jim Howard | November 16, 2011 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Those advocating a return to the CAB "good old days" dont remember the politics and back-room deals that determined who could fly where. Western was barred from serving the California-Hawaii market for a decade due to the influence of Juan Trippe and the Kennedy administration.

Posted by: Jim Lo Bue | November 16, 2011 12:00 PM    Report this comment

Things are just a little skewed from a pricing perspective when you consider that you can fly across the country for less than it would cost to drive it in a Prius. I wonder what effect an increase in airfares would have on the popularity of G.A. ?

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 16, 2011 12:17 PM    Report this comment

It gets worse when an airplane ends up somewhere that it had no intention of being. (divert) I wonder what would happen if someone blew one of the slides and exited the aircraft. Would that be the fault of the airline, the crew, or the pax who opened the door? What would be the resulting legal mess to come out of such an action? I think that it is entirely possible that something like this will happen. We, the industry, have seen enough of people trying to open doors to exit in flight and on the ground. I hope it never happens, but if it does, I wont be shocked,

Posted by: Unknown | November 16, 2011 12:18 PM    Report this comment

Basically the whole "Three Hour Rule" is a form of regulation in and of itself. The air traffic system cannot meet the demand of the industry. The airlines aren't just throwing EMPTY airplanes out into the system to wreak havoc. Obviously there is a need for those flights or the airlines WOULD not be flying them in the current business model. Clearly a case of infrastructure not being able to keep up with demand and the government telling private industry how to conduct their business - sounds like regulation to me.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 16, 2011 12:25 PM    Report this comment

Randolph Palma asked a great question in the “Held Prisoner” thread: "I wonder what effect an increase in airfares would have on the popularity of G.A.?"

Indeed. Unless you have access to a "real" bizjet, your options for domestic travel are few:
1. The Interstate Highway System - it delivers remarkably reliable 1-mile-per-minute performance, and it goes almost everywhere.
2. 500kt multi-leg, hub-and-spoke-style airline travel. With its 2-hour check-ins and inter-leg delays, it currently delivers remarkably unreliable 2-to-3-miles-per-minute performance (slightly higher on longer trips), and it goes to about 500 places.
3. General aviation, in typical light, piston-powered airplanes. It delivers very unreliable 2-to-3-miles-per-minute performance, and it goes to about 7,000 places.

Of course, buying an airline ticket or sliding behind the wheel of the family car both require a lot less effort and commitment than learning to fly and obtaining access to a light aircraft. Still……

If/when GA offers an affordable, pressurized, most-weather, 300kt personal airplane, then the block times would rival the airlines, and the absence of check-in delays and other hassles alone would tip the balance heavily in favor of that method of transportation. In an age of $99 airfares, nobody can “afford” it. But if a domestic ticket was a $3,000 purchase… Well, frequent flyers would have to at least take a hard look at the GA alternative. Just sayin’…

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 16, 2011 3:49 PM    Report this comment

"General aviation, in typical light, piston-powered airplanes. It delivers very unreliable 2-to-3-miles-per-minute performance, and it goes to about 7,000 places."

I might take issue with that. I'd say GA delivers generally reliable performance. When I was using the airplane for business travel, I didn't cancel many trips for any reasons, although door-to-door, it was sometimes quite slow.

I know many others who rely on piston GA for travel with excellent results.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 16, 2011 3:55 PM    Report this comment

"I know many others who rely on piston GA for travel with excellent results."

Sure worked for me for 15 years of daily short-hop commuting, but for a daily 500-miler, maybe not.

Actually I now do a lot of GA travel that previously might have been airline simply because my wife absolutely freaks out over the TSA hassle, particularily the feel-ups. And if God forbid she were trapped in the coffin for 7 hours on some ramp, there would be some kind of TSA/FBI involvement for sure.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 16, 2011 4:22 PM    Report this comment

I hink that travel is a little over-rated, some of the travel could be traded for some serious over the phone handshake, i have been in some deals that at the end we both ask ourselves We could do that over the phone? the ansewr any times is yes.
GA is relliable but expensive, driving is the way to go if your meeting is less than 500 miles, but other travel definately by airline and the TSA harrasment.

Posted by: joe kawage | November 16, 2011 10:04 PM    Report this comment

Randolph Palma,
In answer to your question about layoffs, under regulation prices were enormously higher and there were far, far fewer flights, as only the rich and people on business travel could afford to fly (a coach seat, under regulation, was more expensive than a business class seat is now). Fewer flights is fewer staff, no matter how over-staffed the individual flights are. As for the rumors of a pilot shortage, there has never in the history of aviation been a serious pilot shortage: flying is too much fun, and there are always plenty of people who'd love to do it if the airlines either paid a bit more or slightly lowered the barriers to entry (e.g., by paying for more of the training).

Posted by: Thomas Boyle | November 17, 2011 6:43 AM    Report this comment

> the bottom line is simple - BRING BACK REGULATION !!

That's fine, but it will result in significantly increased fares, thus significantly decreased customer base from which to choose. Only people like you and me (I can afford it) will fly, but Joe Middle Class and his family will have to drive home to meet Grandma (and will experience significant increase in risk of life and injury on the highways as a result.

As Milton Friedman is commonly quoted, "there's just no such thing as a free lunch..."

You had me at "$99 worth of service for $99 fares."


Posted by: GREGORY AMY | November 17, 2011 7:36 AM    Report this comment

The solution is simple: after 3 hours trapped pax should have a ground equivalent of a "may-day". Once it is declared, then the crew MUST ask airport management and security to bring the folks in or face personal criminal liability. If airport management and security, which in the situation recently at Bradley appeared to be the obstacle, then those in charge should also face personal criminal liability. The crew (or pax) should be able to call for police to arrest management and give orders to security to deplane the pax. This right should be printed on the emergency info card. In my years as a consultant, I was amazed how fast problems could be solved when individuals face jail time (rather than just corporations fined)! After all it is essentially kidnapping at that point.

Posted by: Harold Moritz | November 17, 2011 7:46 AM    Report this comment

I don't understand the argument to bring back regulation (fewer more expensive flights). Why reduce your standard of living so that the airlines fit with the airport infrastructure?

Why are there not enough jetways to account for times when there is more traffic than normal? And if this is too expensive why are there not stairs and buses? The airport authority should take part of the blame for this for being ill equipped to keep up with demand.

I live near Zurich and when the gates are full we get on a bus. I've never sat in an airplane on an apron for any length of time.

Posted by: Geoff Engelbrecht | November 17, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

John and Peter pretty much nailed it.

As far as GA, I find it very reliable and relaxing to fly my airplane as opposed to riding and even getting paid to fly that other airplane.

But, Senator Rockefeller (D-WV) wants GA to feel the same pain airline passengers to and the DHS/TSA is helping with LASP -- soon to be issued under a new name.

See www.stoplasp.com for details.

Posted by: John Hyle | November 17, 2011 8:17 AM    Report this comment

Actually I think regulation is SLOWLY creeping back and this three hour rule is a perfect example. If the infrastructure cannot handle the current demand (and clearly under the least little bit of adversity it cannot) then airlines will match the number of flights to what the infrastructure can handle and price them accordingly. You have government telling a private industry how to run it's business because government cannot keep up the ATC and airport infrastructure with demand of the consumers. Have congress pass a piece of legislation concerning pax rights every two years or so and bit by bit before you know it - PRESTO regulation all over again. Won't matter to me though, I fly for free.

Posted by: RANDOLPH PALMA | November 17, 2011 8:36 AM    Report this comment

I guess I should clarify/expand my comment that GA "delivers very unreliable 2-to-3-miles-per-minute performance." It was a comparative characterization.

While many individuals (like PB) truthfully claim that they experience very high reliability in their GA activities, the same cannot be claimed by the GA pilot population at large. One of the biggest factors in dispatch reliability is weather. Just over 1/2 of all pilots are instrument-rated. Among those, fewer than 1/2 use the system with any regularity, if at all. And even where the capability of the pilot is high, the capabilities of his/her machine compromise dispatch reliability on many days of the year in some key areas of the nation.

Comparing the dispatch reliability of automobiles, the airlines, and GA, guess which one comes out the worst when considering the entire eligible population of operators on a 365-day basis?

Based on little more than my own observations over the last 40 years, being based in New England, the statistically-typical VFR-conditions-only GA pilot who flies a typically-equipped light aircraft into or out of weather-prone regions of the USA has a likely dispatch reliability of 50% (reliability being defined here as launching within three hours of the desired/scheduled time where times are picked a week or more in advance). Thus my comparative characterization of “very unreliable performance.”

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | November 17, 2011 8:39 AM    Report this comment

Peter made a good point regarding the airlines CHOOSING to create unnecessary congestion at "push" times. I was in the tower at DCA for an orientation and, in my naivete, asked one of the controllers why there were times when the ramp became a Charlie Foxtrot preceeded and followed by times when almost nobody was moving. His response: "We had a meeting with the airlines and tried to convince them that, if they staggered their departures, with some departing at 0750 and others at 0810 instead of everybody scheduling 0800, then everybody would be able to depart without delay. Their response was, 'Nobody will buy a ticket from us if we changed the departure times like that.'" Result: The airlines are continuing to choose to all (theoretically) depart at the same time, with the consequently unavoidable delays. They are taxing the system, and their customers, needlessly by simply being obdurate. Hence, they could avoid delays, fines and cancellations by just flexing a little!

Posted by: Chris Front | November 17, 2011 8:42 AM    Report this comment

C'mon Berto, don't fall into the piston GA is as reliable (or comfortable, or economic, or as safe) as airlines. It is wishful thinking. Your old Mooney wouldn't stand up to scheduled service, and in terms of passenger expectations, few would pay to set foot on the little critter. Kate Hanni, from flyers rights who perpetuated these airline fines, would require that you install a lavatory, have two pilots aboard, and force you carry enough water and food that you wouldn't get off the ground.

This situation is promulgated by another government mandate where very little was done at airport to facilitate getting people off airplanes. That has to come from airports given the nature of diverts of widely varying airlines. A meeting this month has been scheduled to perhaps address this. Hopefully, Ray La Hood will stop blustering and listen.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 17, 2011 8:52 AM    Report this comment

The aviation industry is arguably more affected by unpredictable weather and natural disasters than any other. The free market simply doesn't provide enough revenue to have the resources to cover every possible scenario. No amount of fines or regulation will prevent 100% of these occurences. If it did, then the government ought to fine the utility companies thousands of dollars for every household without power after a hurricane. In short, there is no simple inexpensive fix that will work 100% of the time. I also find it laughable that people that are willing to spend 8 to 12 hours on a plane to Europe or Asia freakout about having to sit on an airplane on the ramp for three hours.

Posted by: Mitchell Hansen | November 17, 2011 8:52 AM    Report this comment

As became apparent a few weeks ago in Hartford, the AIRPORT operators have a role in this dicussion. The aiports are left off the hook, maybe because all of them are government-owned. It seems to me that the 3 hour rule goes after the airlines since they have the cash flow to actually pay the fine.

I fly, as a passenger, on 4 Delta flights a week, every week and have not yet come close to the rule on any flights. Yet.

Posted by: Roy Forsstrom | November 17, 2011 9:05 AM    Report this comment

"C'mon Berto, don't fall into the piston GA is as reliable (or comfortable, or economic, or as safe) as airlines"

I didn't say it was cheap. I said it was generally reliable, which is was. Thousands of owners have had similar experiences. Just because you can't make it work, doesn't mean others can't. These days, the avoidance of security delays and hassles is a big driver for people who can afford to go the GA route.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 17, 2011 9:15 AM    Report this comment

"Based on little more than my own observations over the last 40 years, being based in New England, the statistically-typical VFR-conditions-only GA pilot who flies a typically-equipped light aircraft into or out of weather-prone regions of the USA has a likely dispatch reliability of 50% (reliability being defined here as launching within three hours of the desired/scheduled time where times are picked a week or more in advance). Thus my comparative characterization of “very unreliable performance.”

Show me your data on this, please.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 17, 2011 9:17 AM    Report this comment

I've not seen a $99 fare in years so I can't accept that as the reason airlines are providing poor service. When they're buying billions of dollars in aircraft a year, they're making money. Maybe not spending it wisely, but they're making it.

Posted by: Roy Forsstrom | November 17, 2011 9:19 AM    Report this comment

The airline flight "bank" system is a huge red herring to deflect the fact that DOT has been negligent in meeting the demand for air travel infrastructure both in the air and on the ground.

The airlines have staggered departure at hubs, but since anyone can fly anytime, it doesn't work when one carrier spreads flights into a continuous hub, while a different carrier simply moves flights into the times that were vacated. The market demands that people leave when THEY want to travel, the government wants to make it so flights leave at their convenience. NATCA has said, over and over, that their solution is for airlines to fly fewer flights on larger airplane. Forget convenience, forget customer needs, the government should control what jets airlines fly and when they are allowed into the airspace. Nevermind that a large jet isn't viable in small markets, making airline service unavailable at smaller cities. Maybe Berto can move into those markets with his Mooney?

Such a mandate is the equivalent of telling motorists who have a fifteen mile commute and have to report to work at 0900 that they must leave in a 0315 to 0330 slot so as to avoid adding to freeway congestion, and oh by the way, you are going only on a bus that doesn't go within ten miles of your home.

I just love general aviation pilots (I am one) who want compete and unrestricted airspace access for themselves, but want to limit everyone else.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 17, 2011 9:20 AM    Report this comment

I've not seen a $99 fare in years so I can't accept that as the reason airlines are providing poor service. When they're buying billions of dollars in aircraft a year, they're making money. Maybe not spending it wisely, but they're making it.

Posted by: Roy Forsstrom | November 17, 2011 9:20 AM    Report this comment

As a frequent traveler, I would rather the flight get canceled than sit ont he palne for 4 hours. I have had it happen once so far because of the rule.

It is simply unacceptable to leave me stuck on an airplane for hours on the ground. If the airport and TSA won't let people deplane with good old fastioned air stairs, then the airlines ought to let the pax know that is the reason they are stuck.

Posted by: Kevin Dudak | November 17, 2011 9:23 AM    Report this comment

I would like to see airlines fly out of private airports. Then they could avoid the onerous TSA and other BS regs. Why do they call it de-regulated when the government sticks their nose into everything the airlines do. Let economics and customer satisfaction determine who flies on what airline. Not more regulations that cause more problems with no solutions. Between the DOT, FAA, TSA, and everybody else, I'm surprised the airlines can make any money at all. And that's before the fines.

Posted by: JIM DUNN | November 17, 2011 9:26 AM    Report this comment

Any fines the DOT collects in these delay situations should be used to establish an infrastructure to ameliorate the delays. Purchase buses and airstairs, train TSA personnel to operate them and provide a contingency plan when an airline needs to deplane off schedule.

Posted by: Sandy Pollack | November 17, 2011 9:36 AM    Report this comment

As far as blowing the slides after three hours goes, that is a very bad idea for several reasons. 1) Sending people down slides guarantees that someone will be injured with sprains, boken bones and abrasions. 2) Once your are clear of the aircraft, you might be standing on the ramp in the middle of a lightning storm or blizzard a half mile or more from the nearest shelter (without your bags). 3) You've just grounded that aircraft and removed any possibility of a timely recovery or getting to your destination. 4) It's against the law to tamper with an aircraft or not follow crewmember instructions. Any passenger attempting this should be arrested and fined.

Despite the media hype, incidents like the Hartford incident have always beene extremely rare. This "feel good" regulation can't and hasn't eliminated eliminated the delays but has led to more cancellations and inconvenienced passengers. I'm sure the next step will be to start fining the local governments, airport authority, and even the TSA for these incidents. That will just add more expense and bureaurcracy to solve a problem that can't be completly eliminated.

Posted by: Mitchell Hansen | November 17, 2011 9:38 AM    Report this comment

You can't use a Mooney for hire if you want to make money. FAA, ATC, local governments, and Big Insurance conspire against piston air taxi. And the market isn't all that wanting anyway.

The whining about people being upset about a 3 hour delay when they will sit on a flight overseas for longer is a red herring.

Has ATC tried limiting the number of IFR slots? What has happened? Couldn't they simply give preference to the bigger planes? How is it the all powerful government runs into so many restrictions that are not in the Constitution while running roughshod over so many things that ARE in the Constitution?

Posted by: Eric Warren | November 17, 2011 10:00 AM    Report this comment

"As far as blowing the slides after three hours goes, that is a very bad idea ..."

I would not expect the Captain to evacuate the airplane with slides for just those reasons.

I would not encourage other 'cattle' to follow me down the slide, but I'm not going to be help prisoner by an airline just because of their incompetent management.

I know my way around airports, I think I'm much safer out on the ramp than trapped in a filthy tube with a hundred other prisoner, with little or no food or water, overflowing lavs, and poorly circulated air.

About a year or so ago airline Captain Les Abend, writing in Flying Magazine, referred to his passengers as 'the cattle'.

This attitude that the customers who are paying airline management and employees salaries are 'cattle' is common in the airlines and of course in the TSA.

At about the 3.5 hour point I'm going to stop being 'cattle'.

Only an airline or government employee would say that the prisoner problem is 'a problem that can't be completely eliminated'. With respect, that a silly statement.

AA held a planeload of 'cattle' prisoner for 9 hours at my home airport, KAUS about a year ago. The airplane was parked in front of the disused south terminal. A few hundred feet away was Signature's air stairs, the ones the Vice President uses when he visits. The airport has a fleet of buses used in the parking lots.

Don't tell me that there was any reason those 'cattle' needed to be penned up for over hours!

Posted by: Jim Howard | November 17, 2011 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Go down the slide big fella, you'll be paying for it after you extricate yourself from the legal system.

The generic "airlines" want your arse off of their jets. They have a massive incentive to get that aircraft and crew back into service. Only an unthinking fool could not already understand that only stupid government rules that the airline is afraid to break are keeping those people aboard, even on an airplane with an integral air stairs. Everything points to getting those passengers off of their aircraft, yet they can't do it. One has to ask as to why, which is what Berto has done here.

Tell you what, next flight when you deplane, go down the jetway stairs and run across that ramp that you "know your way around" instead of into the terminal. See how far you get, and what happens afterwards.

Les Abend and the arrogant Flying staff don't speak for anyone but themselves.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 17, 2011 11:22 AM    Report this comment

The problem is really not the airline, it's the space when on the ground. There are procedures in place at the airlines in the event a ground delay reaches one hr. But, you call ground and request a return to the gate, but the gate has an airplane that ground has not allowed to leave, or the taxiways are packed and there's no way to get in or out, gridlock on the taxiways. If you go to another gate, you get fined because there isn't an approved procedure for your airline and that gate. If you deplane at Signature in KAUS, not TSA approved, bs, bs, bs, fined again.
Procedure for one hr after door closes, do a PA, offer water; at 2 hrs. PA, water, snack, determine if it is likely that you'll take off or not. If not, request return to gate.
By the two hrs, there are probably many other airplanes requesting the same! What's the crew supposed to do if there isn't a way to taxi back. If I let a pax out on the tarmac or taxiway, you think I'll still have a licence??? I can see the headlines, "pilot throws passanger out of airplane, pax in the rain, lightning, snow, bs,bs,bs."
Nobody wants to be stuck on the ground. Not the pax, the crew nor the airline.

Posted by: MARCO ECHEVERRY | November 17, 2011 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Marco, there is nothing you as an airline captain can do if no prior planning has been made for this 100% foreseeable situation.

It would take the airline management, airport management, and TSA sitting down in a conference for maybe 30 minutes to agree on a safe way to handle this problem. At KAUS, and I suspect all other airline airports, there exist air stairs, buses, and buildings that could be pressed in to service to accommodate the passengers of a stranded airliner.

The airlines, airports, FAA, and TSA need to stop thinking of their paying customers as 'cattle', and get off their rear ends and handle this problem.

Two cheers for Congress for authorizing these fines, and Two cheers for the FAA for levying a big fine against Eagle. They get the third cheer when they start fining TSA and the airport management as well.

Posted by: Jim Howard | November 17, 2011 12:13 PM    Report this comment

"It would take the airline management, airport management, and TSA sitting down in a conference for maybe 30 minutes to agree on a safe way to handle this problem."

Really? Congress hasn't been able to agree on a reauthorization bill for the FAA in over, what, 5 years now? Airline management, airport management, and the TSA all have completely different goals that are often in direct conflict with the other (especially the TSA).

Also, regarding the Jet Blue incident at Bradley, that aircraft literally had no where to go. Other stranded aircraft were blocking the Jet Blue aircraft on the taxiway. And if the airport can't reasonably handle all the extra people, should the airlines be expected to just dump a bunch of people on the tarmac? Where should they all go?

Posted by: Gary Baluha | November 17, 2011 12:40 PM    Report this comment

Jim, Do you really think Mother Nature is 100% predictable? Get real. There will always be a an unforseen situation that will require more than the available resources. No amount of legislation, regulation, or fines is going to fix that.

I do agree with you that the the airlines, ATC, local authority and TSA need to do a better job of coordinating how they handle these situations. Every airline and airport I know of has at least a basic plan but there is always room for improvement. Pushing authority to deviate from SOP in non-emergency situations down to on scene commanders would be a good start. The local contingency plans could certainly use improvements at BDL. That still won't prevent 100% of this already rare occurence. Who will you want fined when this happens after you start fining TSA and airport management.
BTW please don't get on my aircraft and threaten to blow the slides. You'll be permitted to leave, but probably in handcuffs.

Posted by: Mitchell Hansen | November 17, 2011 12:46 PM    Report this comment

It is my humble opinion that after, say, 3 hours on the ramp the captain should have the option to declare a ‘ground emergency’, or whatever you choose to call it, that would mandate action to evacuate the cattle by whatever suitable means, current TSA and airport policies be dammed. If it would take an act of Congress to implement this, so be it.

I don’t put the blame for these gridlock incidents on any specific party or single policy, Part 121 air transport is a complex system and complex systems are subject to hitches & glitches. But there is no valid excuse for letting stupid non-issues like fear a hypothetical terrorist could sneak by some checkpoint stop the implementation of otherwise feasible corrective action.

Posted by: John Wilson | November 17, 2011 1:58 PM    Report this comment

"Jim, Do you really think Mother Nature is 100% predictable?"

It is in fact 100% predictable that KHOU and/or KDFW will at times close due to thunderstorms, and that many airplanes will divert to KAUS. It's 100% predictable that a few times a year that many northern U.S. airports will close due to snow and ice, forcing flights to divert to other northern tier airports.

Any airport, airline, and government agency that can't prepare for these 100% predictable events should indeed be fined heavily for their stupidly and short sighted greed.

Strong message follows.

Posted by: Jim Howard | November 17, 2011 2:06 PM    Report this comment

I'd disagree with Paul: GA is pretty unreliable just because most pilots are VFR-only or light IFR. Flying hard IFR in a single-engine plane isn't for the faint of heart, even if you do have an autopilot and glass panel. There's also the issue of $/mile. Personally, I almost never cancel a trip in my no-autipilot 182 with steam gauges, but as it's been pointed out to me numerous times, I'm an idiot with high risk tolerance. It's at least twice as expensive per mile as taking the car (but faster). GA isn't really an alternative to commercial travel and never will be since there's never going to be a 300 knot safe, easy to fly pressurized turbine that gets 25 mpg and costs less than your house. GA is unreliable, but it's still a good option for those of us who can afford it and are willing to spend the money and effort required.

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | November 17, 2011 2:32 PM    Report this comment

Who exactly Jim, is going to FINE the US Government?

Good grief, they can't keep roads open when those "100% predictable" snow events that are so easy to prognosticate occur. How about a fine when the ATC system goes down due to computer failure or perhaps when a controller falls asleep?

Blowhards aside, there is a meeting scheduled at the end of this month to get the players together to try to find a solution. Even Ray LaHood has realized that talking big and handing out penalties didn't solve the problem. There must be rule changes so vehicles can enter the ramp and ferry customers to a terminal.

Whereupon of course, those passengers will be on their own to find food and lodging.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 17, 2011 4:39 PM    Report this comment

Hey guys, come on. Let's put this situation in the proper perspective. How many US flights operate every day, 30,000, 50,000? Fifteen flights at ORD & nine flights at BDL got "TARMAC STRANDED". What percentage is that? Remember this latest incident was an historic snowstorm. Many people were stranded in trains & autos too. Millions were stranded in their homes with no power for weeks! I don't know the details of why the passengers could not deplane at BDL, but since this sort of thing happens so seldom, I don't think we should let the media get us all worked up over it.

For those who want to turn back the clock, I remember back in the '60's sitting on the ramp (not tarmac PLEEASE) for more than 3 hrs numerous times at NY airports due to controller slowdowns, or wx. I also recall over the 1968-69 winter holidays, 6 fatal US airline crashes within 6 weeks!

Maybe present airline operations are not too bad after all.

Posted by: Bob Merritt | November 17, 2011 4:46 PM    Report this comment

Paul, you asked for the view of our airline brethren. I found this September 2010 post from the "FL250" blog illuminating. It's a pilot's-eye view of the launch/cancel decision in the face of a thunderstorm at Laguardia.

"(Another) New York Story"
fl250.blogspot dot com / 2010_09_01_archive.html

"...Now I was seriously second-guessing my decision to push back before the storm. We had undoubtedly saved our passengers an hour, probably more, by doing so. However, the dreaded Three Hour Rule was rearing its ugly head. For those who are unfamiliar with this debacle..."

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | November 17, 2011 5:25 PM    Report this comment

Well Paul, do you think you got enough responses on this one?

As a pilot, I can tell you that the pressure on the front liners (crews), dealing with our upset customers, is getting to be more unmanageable as time goes on.

Two things I would like to mention are; 1) There has to be a system in place to remove our customers from the airframes during a gridlock situation, and 2) we want to get out of the airframe a lot more than our customers do!

Posted by: Denis Costello | November 17, 2011 6:14 PM    Report this comment

At the risk of spoiling a perfectly good argument by providing data, this Bureau of Transportation Statistics chart lists the number of 3-hour tarmac delays each month from Oct 2008 to September 2011.

www.bts dot gov / programs/airline_information / taxi_out_and_other_tarmac_times/

I'm interested to see that the monthly instances of 3-hour tarmac delays were in the 30-270(!) range until Aug 2009, plummeted, resurged a little in early 2010, and have been in the 0-20 range since then. What changed in late 2009? The Three Hour Rule "Debacle"? A worsening economy? Enlightened airline management?

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | November 17, 2011 7:37 PM    Report this comment

i wa flying out of mexico city ti chicago on june 23, we were about to take off when the captain said we were returning to the gate cause a problem in he airplane, after 2 hours the crew sais thata we were going to be held for a couple of hours more until a mechanich or another airplane that was coming from LAX could relay our flight, I told the steward to tell the captain that i was a pilot and an attorney and that tha airline was facing a big fine, promoted by me and supported by the passengers, sudenly they chose to deplane us, when i was walking throu the aisle the pilot asked the steward "who is the pilot?" she pointed at me and the guys deplanig gave me the thank you smile,,,,,

Posted by: joe kawage | November 17, 2011 9:31 PM    Report this comment

Since the problem is caused by the airlines not having enough money to pay for extra gates and personnel at all their airports, then the solution must be either to charge higher fares, or to further lower their costs – right?

The iron law of economics kicks in if they opt for raising ticket prices: As the price of a widget rises, the amount of widgets sold, declines.

How about lowering their costs? Would it help if the airlines paid a lot less for fuel, than today's prices? If bureaucrats, politicians, and tree-huggers suddenly stopped their opposition to drilling, pipelines and refineries, would the airlines' financial position be improved? If salaries, benefits and pension costs of govt employees and regulating bureaucrats, were slashed to levels of their private-sector counterparts, would it be necessary for the airlines to pay current high fees for landing, gates, ATC, maintenance inspectors and such? If Boeing could build planes in Right-to-Work states, would the price of those new planes be less? If the airlines were not faced with huge draconian fines, written and imposed by bureaucrats, who most likely never operated a business of their own, would they be less likely to cancel flights in the first place?

Seems to me all the problems complained about, are the legacy of way too much regulation, high taxes and fees. Beyond me why anyone would prescribe more of the same.

Posted by: Robert Boser | November 18, 2011 9:57 AM    Report this comment

No, it's beyond that Robert. It is a lack of customs officials at divert airports, a lack of airport policies and security rules that allow for use of things like remote jetways and people movers compatible with jets. The recent JFK snow storm was exacerbated by certain low viz equipment being out of service. It is an across the board problem that requires cooperation between government and private industry. Not just egomaniacal blustering.

Don't worry though, these are the people who want to control your access to healthcare. What could go wrong?

Here is the GAO findings, since I was unable to post the links properly. Just search on GAO report, tarmac delays.

Increased likelihood of cancellation in 2010 compared to 2009

Before taxi out - 24 percent more likely
1–60 minutes - 31 percent more likely
61–120 minutes - More than twice as likely (214 percent)
121–180 minutes - More than 3 times as likely (359 percent)

Source: GAO analysis of DOT data.

Posted by: Max Buffet | November 18, 2011 10:10 AM    Report this comment

You all need to read "Hard Landings" by WSJ Reporter Thomas Petzinger.

It is a little dated but an excellent read about how the airlines battled each other for control of the skies, in the period after deregulation.

It is the kind of book you can't put down, and will want to re-read. Once you finish it, you will be fascinated by the innner-workings of the airline business, and better understand why we are even having this discussion about delays today. Check it out on Amazon......

Posted by: DAVID COLEMAN | November 18, 2011 10:42 AM    Report this comment

I have had that book in my library since 1997 (fully read by me). Although a bit more subtle than writers like John Nance, I classify Petzinger as one of the polemic agenda writers. He FIRST decides what his truth is to be and then his "research" gathers all bits of history which seem to support his pre-determined view, while casting out or minimizing the parts which tend to belie his theories. The title ("Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines into Chaos") itself reveals his bias, as does Nance's travesty "BLIND TRUST: How Deregulation Has Jeopardized Airline Safety and What You Can Do About it."

I would recommend reading "Why Airplanes Crash: Aviation Safety in a Changing World," by Clinton V. Oster Jr., C. Kurt Zorn and John S. Strong (May 28, 1992). One of the best examples I know of how honest, fair and objective research and writing is really done. Nance's book comes out as a true absurdity in comparison, and Petzinger's bias against deregulation (Read: Free Markets), is made much more clear.

Posted by: Robert Boser | November 19, 2011 3:31 PM    Report this comment

Somebody asked earlier how the total number of cancellations compared to the total flights. The same BTS site above show that during the worst month, 268 flights were delayed on the tarmac 3 hours or more. There were 760,356 domestic flights that month. 0.035% or 1 in 2800 were cancelled in the worst month of June of 2009 (2 months after the rule went into effect). The average number of 3 hour delays in the 8 months prior was 69 per month or 1 in 10,300 flights. Throwing out the two highest months after the June 09 month, the average dropped to around 12 delays per month or 1 in 60,000 was delayed 3 hours or more. So the rule did do it's job of reducing delays. But the GAO report on increased cancellations since the rule went into efffect ( up to three times higher) suggest that more passengers might now be inconvienced by the results. All to solve a problem that occured 1 in 10,000 flights.

Posted by: Mitchell Hansen | November 19, 2011 8:16 PM    Report this comment

Normally when anybody proposes another regulation which either forbids one or compels one to do something, I tend to ask, "are there not too many regulations already?"

To me, the litmus test of any proposed regulation is this: Whose needs, and what needs, is said regulation supposed to serve? The practical needs of society or the purely emotional, purely intellectual, purely ego needs of self-appointed crusaders?

In light of this suggested litmus test, how would one evaluate this proposed regulation: If an aircraft is stuck out there on the concrete for more than an hour, the passengers MUST be evacuated and bused to the terminal. Period. No exceptions. Airlines which keep passengers trapped on airplanes for hours on end, especially with no updates on when the plane will be allowed to taxi to the terminal, will be fined and furthermore,subject to civil lawsuits by passengers.

Seems to me that since any of us members of the public (including pilots not trained, equipped and authorized to fly in icing conditions or in the soup) may at some time fly on airliners, my proposed regulation is more than just a neurotic ego trip for consumer advocates. It is an utterly practical matter for us all. I am petrified of the possibility that on a routine flight to (for example) the west coast, I'll be trapped on a plane for nine hours with nobody giving the passengers any updates on when the endless torture will end.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | November 21, 2011 10:01 AM    Report this comment

"All to solve a problem that occured 1 in 10,000 flights."

Easy for you to say if you're not one of the people on one of the delayed flights. Let's call it around 5000 commercial flights a day in the U.S., so this occurs every two days or so or around 180 times a year.

Trivial? I don't think so, so if the airlines can be nudged to avoid them, so much the better. I'm not so sure three hours is all that intolerable. But seven is egregious. It shows a complete lack of problem solving ability.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 21, 2011 10:49 AM    Report this comment

Paul, the currnt rate for tarmac delays of 3 hours or more is less than one in 60,000!! The rule has improved it. And increased cancellations according to the GAO. The Eagle fiasco in ORD was airline driven and the fine appears justified. The 7 or 9 hour delays associated with the major weather events like BDL happen around 1 in a million flights. The only way to improve on this will be to require every entity involved (FAA, TSA, Local Airport etc.) to actually have a plan and bear some responsibility. Simply fining the airlines more while making them the sole responsible party in a complex system isn't the answer.

Posted by: Mitchell Hansen | November 21, 2011 11:45 AM    Report this comment

I was referring to the previous rate, Mitchell, before the penalty came into effect. Again, even the seven-hour variety ought to be avoidable because that is a long, long time to try to figure out how to get people off an airplane, rare or not.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 21, 2011 12:14 PM    Report this comment

My comments since my last entry: One: If anybody other than an airline, i.e. the airport, is responsible for imprisoning passengers for hours, there should be clearly defined lines of responsibility and those individuals should be held responsible and liable for such occurrences.

Two: What's horrifying is not so much the length of time, but also the passengers have no means of knowing how much longer their ordeal will last. If you have already been trapped in a big metal tube (i.e. a plane) for three hours and you have no means of knowing whether you'll be released in the next 20 minutes or whether you'll be trapped for another 5, that's frightening. So again we need mandatory relief, i.e. evacuation of the plane and busing to the terminal, after an agreed-on and reasonable period of time.

Posted by: Alex Kovnat | November 21, 2011 1:02 PM    Report this comment

I think the GAO report to which Harry Alger referred is:

"Airline Passenger Protections: More Data and Analysis Needed to Understand Effects of Flight Delays",
GAO-11-733. September 7, 2011.

URL: www.gao dot gov products/GAO-11-733

Posted by: James DeLaHunt | November 21, 2011 2:28 PM    Report this comment

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