American Airlines Reconsiders its Stormy Weather Plan

American Airlines Inc. is re-examining how it operates during thunderstorms to avoid stranding passengers on grounded airplanes for hours, a spokesman said Wednesday.

Last Friday, a string of storms kept rolling over Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for much of the day and into the evening.

The Fort Worth-based carrier diverted aircraft to other cities and canceled hundreds of flights.

But decisions about whether to cancel flights were delayed because of uncertainty about when the storms would pass.

That put more aircraft at other airports, including Austin and Oklahoma City, than local employees could handle along with scheduled flights from those airports to other cities.

American spokesman John Hotard said the carrier is still reviewing what went wrong that day - and how it should handle future disruptions to its schedule.

The airline diverted 85 flights on Friday, compared with the 40 to 50 that usually are diverted during a thunderstorm.

"One facet in particular is how we divert aircraft - what cities do we divert them to and how do you ensure that one city doesn't get overloaded?" Mr. Hotard said.

"That said, Friday was so overwhelming, with double the number of normal diversions, that we almost didn't have anywhere else to put airplanes."

American canceled 435 flights that day, 426 of them because of bad weather.

With many of its airplanes and crews out of place, American also canceled 158 flights on Saturday, 130 attributed to weather.

"Our intent throughout the evening [Friday] was to return these diverted flights back to D/FW, connect them to get them to their original destinations - until we reached a point that was going to be impossible," Mr. Hotard said.

The weather-related problems left many passengers unable to get home until Saturday or later.

Mr. Hotard said Tuesday may have been the first normal day of operations since the Friday storms, with only 39 of 2,263 scheduled flights canceled.

On aircraft

The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday about a flight from San Francisco that kept passengers on board in Austin for about eight hours before they were allowed to get off the aircraft.

Other flights, in Austin and elsewhere, stranded passengers for long periods as well.

In a number of cases, American loaded passengers, pulled away from the gate and waited for weather at D/FW to improve - only to cancel the flight hours later.

Glenn W. Scott, an assistant professor of journalism at Elon University in North Carolina, was returning home from Fresno, Calif., to Raleigh-Durham, N.C., when his American flight was diverted to Austin.

He, his wife and their 7-year-old son found themselves among many other passengers trapped on airplanes near the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport gates.

"We were a little fortunate that our flight crew was superb in trying to make life bearable," Mr. Scott said. "The restrooms remained moderately usable, and the flight attendants never quit working."

Mr. Scott didn't criticize the cockpit crew. One of the pilots "told us once that his requests to get a gate were simply being ignored. So the frustration was in the cockpit as well as in the passenger cabin," he said.

Passengers on his flight, which had departed Fresno around 9:30 a.m. Central Standard Time, finally were allowed to get off the airplane in Austin around 7 p.m.

"Even after that, AA had no plan for us that anyone communicated until hours later," he said.

"You'd think some supervisor, some exec, might have the guts to come out to apologize and to hold a mike and explain what AA had in store for us. But we just stood there waiting, passing around a lot of inaccurate speculation."

After passengers waited in lines for at least two hours, American announced that it would give them hotel vouchers and fly them to Dallas the next morning, he said.

The family finally arrived back in North Carolina around midnight Saturday, after American booked them seats on United Airlines Inc. flights through Washington.

For the record, Mr. Hotard expressed regrets on behalf of the airline.

"Obviously, American Airlines apologizes to its customers for what we put them through during this holiday period," Mr. Hotard said.

Usual storms

American must deal regularly with thunderstorms that roll through North Texas. But those storms usually travel from west to east and their duration can often be predicted.

On Friday, however, the storm trundled up from the south and kept bringing fresh bouts of rain, lightning and tornado alerts.

At one point in the late afternoon, American prepared to evacuate the nerve center for the airline, its system operations control center near D/FW Airport, as warning sirens were blowing.

Mr. Hotard said Friday's storms hit earlier in the day than the 3 to 5 p.m. period when most thunderstorms arrive, forcing diversions to a ring of cities around D/FW, including Shreveport, La., Little Rock, Ark., San Antonio, Longview, Texas, Tulsa, Okla., and others.

Electrical storms

American officials thought they would be able to soon resume flights and allowed other flights to take off for D/FW.

But the storms kept coming, including electrical storms that forced it to close its D/FW terminal ramps several times.

"Complicating the Austin situation was the fact that it too had thunderstorms and lightning which closed its ramp," Mr. Hotard said.

Employees on the ground can be killed if lightning strikes an airplane they're touching, he said.

"That also hinders you in taking passengers off an aircraft, putting them on a bus and getting into a terminal, which was a problem we faced in Austin," he said.

One flight from Zurich, Switzerland, was diverted to Tulsa, which has no international customs facility. As a result, American had to keep the passengers on the airplane and fly a fresh crew to Tulsa to pilot the plane.

The aircraft finally arrived at D/FW early Saturday morning, about 10 hours after it landed in Tulsa and 22 hours after it departed Zurich.

Mr. Hotard said that in retrospect, it was a mistake to take that plane to Tulsa, although at the time it was the nearest airport.

"That's one of the issues we're looking at - where they diverted to and why," he said.

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