In response, help may be on the way from Washington. On Monday, the U.S. Transportation Department wrote its first ticket for a tarmac delay, a $900,000 fine against American Eagle Airlines for keeping hundreds of passengers stuck on a plane in Chicago this year. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department also announced that they would hold a forum Nov. 30 to find better ways to handle aircraft diversions. And the current version of the FAA reauthorization bill would enshrine existing federal regulations limiting the length of time a plane can wait on a tarmac into law.
“The haphazard airline tarmac delays that occurred in Hartford to airline passengers have happened one too many times, and frankly, it’s unjustifiable,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) told me. “Passengers’ rights need to be strengthened so events like this never happen again. That’s exactly why I have made airline passenger rights a priority in the Senate FAA bill.”
I can’t argue with the fact that airline passengers have few rights and that they could stand to have a few more. The Transportation Department and FAA should be meeting — indeed, should have met years ago — to discuss this issue.
But does all this legislative effort need to be devoted to an issue that affects next to no one and is already heavily regulated?
Let’s look at August, the last month for which numbers are available. It had just three delays of more than three hours out of 541,442 scheduled flights, according to the Transportation Department. The previous month? One flight out of 547,219.
Excessive tarmac delays have been on the government’s radar ever since a Northwest Airlines flight was grounded during a 1999 snowstorm at Detroit’s Metro Airport, leaving passengers without water or working toilets for more than seven hours. Efforts were well underway to address the issue even before the latest gang of tarmac activists parachuted into town, and there was a consensus that the new regulations, the last of which went into effect in August, would fix whatever problem remained.
But if the FAA bill had passed before the latest incident, would it have made any difference?
To find out, I interviewed everyone involved in the latest tarmac stranding: the two major airlines affected, JetBlue Airways and American Airlines; airport officials; and the federal and Connecticut transportation departments.
Although several investigations are ongoing, all parties seem to agree that a variety of factors led to the lengthy delays, including weather, power outages, air traffic control and inadequate facilities.