FLIGHT DELAY ISSUE HEATS UP; AIRLINE INDUSTRY BALKS AT DOT REPORT

Pressure is building on the airline industry to guarantee that passengers won't be stuck for hours on the tarmac, following a report from the U.S. Department of Transportation released this week.

The report dissected several incidents in which airlines stranded passengers for hours, and said the government should require the airlines to let passengers off the plane after a certain time.

Some airlines already have created such a policy voluntarily, but a few major ones, such as Delta Air Lines and US Airways, have not. Efforts to reach those airlines for comment were unsuccessful.

The industry's trade group, the Air Transport Association, rejected the report's main recommendation in testimony before a House subcommittee Wednesday. "Imposing an arbitrary time frame to deplane passengers will have numerous unintended consequences that are likely to increase cancellations and cause even greater delays for passengers," said ATA President James C. May.

May said a task force that fell apart after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks should be reassembled to improve contingency planning between the airlines, airports and the Federal Aviation Administration.

DOT's 56-page report found that the number of flights with long, onboard tarmac delays was up 42 percent in the first half of 2007, affecting more than 54,000 flights.

Of those, 189 were four to five hours long and 44 were longer than five hours. The report also noted that airlines are stuffing their planes with fliers, including an average of 86.1 percent of seats filled in June. "With more seats filled, air carriers have fewer options to accommodate passengers from canceled flights," the report said.

Some airlines say they've already reformed since March, when Peters ordered the inspector general to investigate the causes of extreme ground delays.

American Airlines said it has decided to keep 10 seats on certain flights around major holidays unsold until the day of departure to leave space for passengers who are displaced by canceled or delayed flights, said spokesman Tim Wagner. If the weather is clear that day, some but not all of the seats would be released for sale.

"This will have some impact on our revenue," Wagner said.

American has also changed the way it handles flights that have to be diverted to alternate airports because of bad weather. A huge storm on Jan. 29, 2006, in Dallas led American to divert 124 flights to 24 airports, including 11 to Austin, Texas, where one plane waited for a gate for 9 hours and 16 minutes, the report said.

In response, American decided to divert planes more broadly. In a Feb. 24 incident, American diverted 76 planes to 32 airports so that no one field would be overburdened. The DOT report said only one of the 76 planes had an onboard delay of more than four hours, because of a lack of U.S. Customs officials.

American has set a policy that no one should involuntarily be on its planes for more than four hours on the ground, Wagner said.

DOT said more airlines have set such policies since it started its investigation in March.

JetBlue Airways has pledged to keep passengers on the ground no more than five hours in a row. An ice storm on Valentine's Day that led to JetBlue's well-publicized service collapse at John F. Kennedy International Airport triggered the Transportation Department's investigation of ground delays.

The report said JetBlue's long-standing policy to not cancel flights left its personnel at JFK overwhelmed. It found JetBlue passengers endured ground delays of more than four hours on 26 flights that day.

The next big test of whether the airlines have tamed their ground delay problem comes in less than two months. About 4.8 million travelers are expected to be flying for Thanksgiving, Orlando-based travel club AAA said.

Tom Stieghorst can be reached at tstieghorst@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5008.

INFORMATIONAL BOX:

FLY SMART

Robert Darbelnet, president of the Orlando-based travel club AAA, said passengers should practice "defensive flying:"

Check airline and airport Web sites for delays before departure.

Bring your own food and entertainment for children.

Program numbers of airlines, hotels and car rental firms on your cell phone.

Take the earliest possible flight, which is less likely to be delayed.

Online

See video of one passenger's ordeal aboard a delayed flight from New York to Dallas at Sun-Sentinel.com/airlines

INFORMATIONAL BOX:

Delay policies

Airlines have set limits for when to deplane passengers experiencing extended ground delays. Some airlines only have policies for flights that are departing, others for flights that have already arrived. The practices of some major carriers to South Florida, and the dates they were adopted, if the policies recently changed:

Airline Time to deplane passengers American 4 hours (4/10/07) Continental 4 hours for departures (6/15/07) Delta none JetBlue 5 hours (2/20/07) Northwest 1 hour for arrivals, 3 hours for departures Southwest 2 hours United 1.5 hours for arrivals, 4 hours for departures (9/05/07) US Airways none Source: Department of Transportation,

Office of Inspector General


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