Walk down memory lane with me to wintertimes in years gone by, when bad weather routinely caused passengers on hundreds of flights to be stranded on airplanes that had pulled away from the gate but then sat idled on tarmacs, neither taking off nor returning to the terminal, for three, five, even 12 hours and more.
Oh, the horror stories we heard about desperate and angry passengers, some sick; wailing babies; overflowing toilets; wretched ventilation; frantic flight crews. An average of 1,500 domestic flights in each of the worst years, 2007 and 2008, were stranded on tarmacs for three hours or longer, the Transportation Department said. During late 2006 through 2009, I often heard from stranded, angry passengers on such flights — some who called on their cellphones or emailed directly from stricken planes.
One of my favorite stories came from Mark Veil, who was among the 150 stuck for over 10 hours on an American Airlines flight diverted by storms to Austin, Texas, on Dec. 29, 2006. As conditions worsened, “I finally took out my cellphone, which has a function to flash an attention light, and began signaling SOS out my window, over and over,” he said.
On another plane sitting nearby, passenger Kate Hanni, already horrified by the atrocious conditions on her own plane, happened to look out her seat window and saw Veil’s signal flashing through the gloom. “I’m trying to figure out what the heck it was,” Hanni told me later, “and then I realized: dit-dit-dit … dah-dah-dah … dit-dit-dit … SOS! I don’t know Morse Code, but everybody knows SOS.”
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The SOS didn’t bring help, but it did help Hanni in her determination to take action for reform in the weeks and years after. Working indefatigably through grass-roots organizing, she started a group and a website called FlyersRights.org that over two years later (and despite sustained derision from the airline industry), achieved its goal: “passengers’ rights” provisions in federal law, and a federal rule that set draconian fines of up to $27,000 per passenger for airlines that keep passengers stuck for over three hours on planes that leave the gate but remain on the tarmac.
This winter’s mess
Let’s look at the mess in air travel this winter, in which horrible weather caused airlines to cancel a total of 95,576 flights from December through Feb. 14, according to the flight-information service FlightView. That’s more than twice the number of flights canceled in the same period a year ago. And more than 15,000 additional flights have been canceled since Feb. 14.
Yet during this stretch of cancellations and bad weather, which directly or indirectly affected all of the major U.S. airports, there were only a few reports of excessive tarmac strandings like those that occurred by the thousands in bad weather from 2006 through 2009.
In the last two years, tarmac delays of over three hours have ticked up slightly — to 83 domestic flights last year, according to the Transportation Department. Not all such delays trigger fines. But last October, the department announced the largest fine yet assessed, $1.1 million against United Airlines for 13 individual delays exceeding three hours during severe thunderstorms at O’Hare airport in Chicago.
Still, since the delay rules first took effect in April 2010, “Controllable tarmac delays all but vanished,” according to a report, “Tarmac Rule: Three Years Later” by the aviation data consultancy masFlight.
There is no dispute on this point, and the group Hanni founded takes well-deserved credit from fliers — and blame, from the airlines.
“While we are not happy about the performance during this winter, with the massive number of cancellations and disruptions, the fact that we’ve had virtually no, or very few, of these strandings is really a success story,” said Paul Hudson, the president of FlyersRights.org. “There’s always talk about regulation being a big problem for airline industry, but it’s hard to explain, especially in light of this bad weather, how we didn’t have more strandings this winter.”
Noted, said Joshua Marks, chief executive of masFlight. But Marks and Hudson agree that the issue is more complicated than airlines simply fixing the tarmac strandings because of the threat of huge fines, including canceling flights in advance out of fear that the weather might cause those fines.
“We have compound factors at work this winter,” Marks said, explaining that the tarmac-delay rules might have combined with new federal regulations on the number of hours pilots can work without rest, known as Part 117 rules, to account for some of the many cancellations this year.
“It’s hard at this point to try to single out what was being caused by the tarmac-delay rule and what’s been caused by 117,” he said, “and in many respects the two are linked” as airlines try to calculate the odds of prompt sanctions in any given situation.
“There’s balance between those two factors and how much the cancellations were caused by the fact that the weather was just terrible,” he said.
At present, with domestic flight cancellations since December now at a number that exceeds the total of all commercial flights in any three average days, passengers who need to rebook canceled flights have been experiencing difficulties. That’s because airlines have consolidated and reduced the number of flights, and most flights have nearly all seats occupied.
“So there is the inconvenience of people being delayed up to three to five days but not being stranded,” Hudson said. “The biggest problem right now is to recover from these storms, because the airlines don’t have sufficient reserves.”