DOT Plans Probe of Airline Strandings

The U.S. transportation secretary yesterday called for an investigation into widespread recent delays and cancellations that stranded thousands of passengers at Kennedy Airport and at the Austin, Texas, airport when JetBlue Airways Corp. and American Airlines were unable to get their planes off the ground after severe storms.

Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters asked department inspector general Calvin Scovel to look into the cause of the problems at JetBlue and American and how such incidents might be prevented in the future.

"I have serious concerns about airlines' contingency planning that allows passengers to sit on the tarmac for hours on end," Peters said in a statement. "It is imperative that airlines do everything possible to ensure that situations like this do not occur again."

Forest Hills-based JetBlue canceled more than 1,000 flights and left about 100,000 passengers stranded - some on grounded airplanes at Kennedy for as long as 10 hours - in a Valentine's Day snow and ice storm and its aftermath. JetBlue did not get its operations back on schedule until late last week.

The airline has since adopted a passengers' "bill of rights" promising that nobody would be left sitting on grounded planes for more than five hours. JetBlue chairman and chief executive David Neeleman apologized repeatedly for the airline's meltdown, and said passengers who were affected by the delays and cancellations will be compensated. JetBlue also estimated that it might spend as much as $30 million in compensation to passengers and overtime to employees.

In a statement, JetBlue said, "We will cooperate fully with the Department of Transportation inspector general."

Late last week, American, the world's largest carrier, sent apologies and vouchers to more than 4,600 passengers stranded on its planes during thunderstorms in late December. American has also implemented a policy to allow passengers to leave a flight grounded after four hours.

Peters, in her statement, said she wants Scovel to examine the airlines' customer service commitments and policies that deal with extended ground delays aboard aircraft "and to provide his assessment on why the American and JetBlue situations occurred.

"Passengers have a right to know what to expect when it comes to ground delays," Peters said.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced legislation that would require passengers to be allowed to leave grounded planes after three hours. Airlines oppose such legislation, saying those decisions must be left to air crews and the airlines.

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