Long waits on the taxiway of two-plus hours by domestic airliners nearly doubled in January from a year earlier, federal data released Monday show.
The report by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics says 588 flights sat for more than two hours on taxiways before taking off in January. Although that's just 9.5 incidents for every 10,000 domestic flights, the number was up from 298 in January 2006. The January 2007 rate was lower than the overall 2006 rate of more than 10 such incidents for every 10,000 flights operated.
The report does not include flights that waited on taxiways and then were canceled, so the number of flights with long taxiway waits is probably higher.
The monthly accounting from the unit of the Department of Transportation comes amid growing public and congressional concern about how many flights are forced to wait hours after leaving the gate, especially during severe weather.
On Valentine's Day last month, nine JetBlue flights sat for more than six hours in an ice storm at New York's John F. Kennedy airport. The storm stranded hundreds of passengers for up to 10 hours, prompting calls for federal regulation to prevent recurrences.
David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, the airlines' main trade group, said airlines are not surprised by the numbers.
"The number of delays is increasing along with the number of lengthy delays," he said. "The air traffic control system as it exists today can't handle it."
He said his member airlines don't expect much improvement until the Federal Aviation Administration modernizes the systems that guide planes on the ground and in the air.
With 98 long delays, Houston-based ExpressJet, a regional carrier that flies as Continental Express, had the most in January. ExpressJet's home base of Houston was hit by a rare ice storm Jan. 16, and a shortage of de-icing equipment led to long delays.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines and regional-jet partner American Eagle followed ExpressJet for the most long delays.
American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said that Dallas and Chicago, American's biggest hub airports, were both hit by "multiple ice and snowstorms" in January that delayed many flights. "The weather severely impacted our on-time performance and baggage performance, as well," Wagner said.
Members of Congress have called for a passenger bill of rights that would cap how long flights could wait before returning to the gate. DOT's inspector general is also investigating why passengers were held for hours on the JetBlue flights as well as on a Dec. 29 American Airlines flight that was diverted from Dallas to Austin, where it sat for hours. Hundreds on tarmac more than 2 hours
Hours between the time domestic flights for U.S. carriers pulled away from the gate and when they took off:
Hours 2-3 3-4 4-5 More than 5
Flights 454 96 34 4
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation