Share story

NEW YORK — Hundreds of passengers who were stranded on parked JetBlue planes for up to 10½ hours could have been evacuated sooner if the airline had not waited to ask airport officials for help, the company founder said Thursday.

The airline acknowledged that it hesitated nearly five hours before calling in shuttle buses to unload 10 jets that spent much of Wednesday sitting on runways at Kennedy Airport because of icy weather and gate congestion.

Meanwhile, exasperated passengers sat within sight of the terminal without food, adequate restrooms or a reasonable explanation as to why they were not moving.

Sean Corrinet of Salem, Mass., spent almost nine hours aboard a JetBlue flight for Cancún, Mexico, that never got off the ground.

“It was like — what’s the name of that prison in Vietnam where they held McCain? — the Hanoi Hilton,” Corrinet said, referring to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said the crew passed out bags of chips, the only food available, and periodically cracked the hatch to let in fresh air.

Newlyweds Cheryl and Seth Chesner spent 10 ½ hours trying to take a JetBlue flight to Aruba for their honeymoon. “It was the worst,” she said. Eventually they gave up and went home to the Bronx.

While the Chesners waited to take off, John Farrell waited to arrive. His flight from Fort Myers, Fla., landed at 10 a.m., but passengers didn’t get off until nearly 7 p.m., he said.

“You gotta realize the frustration. You can look out the window and you can see there’s the gate, and if you let us off the plane, we can walk there,” said Farrell, 48, of Brooklyn.

JetBlue officials finally phoned the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs area airports, at 3 p.m. to ask for staircases and buses to get people off the planes and back to the terminal.

“We should have called them sooner,” said JetBlue founder and CEO David Neeleman.

Once they did, some passengers were free within 30 minutes. Others had to wait while the Port Authority shoveled out snow-covered equipment and rounded up drivers.

Six flights were stranded for more than eight hours.

Neeleman said he could not apologize enough. “We should have done better,” he said.

On Thursday, JetBlue promised a full refund and a free round-trip flight to customers delayed aboard an aircraft for more than three hours. Passengers with canceled flights were being offered a refund. All other passengers with travel booked through Monday were being offered a chance to cancel and rebook without having to pay the usual fee.

Asked why the airline did not summon staircases and shuttle buses to unload the 10 planes with extraordinary delays sooner, Neeleman said, “That’s a very good question.”

“I think the ice condition made it very difficult for us,” he said. “We were worried about our customers falling down the stairs and hurting themselves.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has no rules regarding how long airlines may leave passengers aboard a grounded craft.

JetBlue’s problems began developing when snow and ice pellets made takeoffs difficult but did not stop landings, Neeleman said, resulting in the airline accumulating 52 airplanes at a terminal with 21 gates.

Other airlines experienced problems, too. Passenger Mark Mannix said he spent hours stranded aboard an American Airlines jet. The plane was scheduled to depart for Miami at 5:45 a.m. It did not push back from the gate until nearly 7:45 a.m. and soon halted for another delay. The pilot finally returned to the terminal at 10:45 a.m. after deciding it was not safe to fly.

Mannix said the airline made food available — at a price. He said he paid $3 for a cookie.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said an icy runway prevented the plane from taking off.

Weather delays of up to six hours continued to plague JFK on Thursday, but airlines expected conditions to return to normal by today.

The strandings revived calls for Congress to enact an airline customer-rights law.

Rep. Michael Thompson, D-Calif., said Thursday he planned to introduce a bill that would address delayed flights, time on the tarmac, cancellations and lost or damaged luggage.

The airline industry beat back a similar push for legislation in 1999 after agreeing to adopt a voluntary customer-service initiative.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said Thursday she will introduce a bill to give passengers the right to get off the airplane if it’s been on the ground for more than three hours past its scheduled departure time.

“No one should be held hostage on an aircraft,” she said.

Material from Reuters and USA Today was included in this report.