Stranded Albany Airport CEO Vows Not at His Place

Mar. 3 -- COLONIE, N.Y. -- When Albany County Airport Authority CEO John O'Donnell found himself stuck in a parked airplane in Philadelphia for five hours two weeks ago, he resolved to ensure passengers here wouldn't find themselves in a similar predicament.

In recent weeks, JetBlue, American and United Airlines all have drawn the ire of angry passengers after some of their flights sat on the ground for eight hours or more.

"I'm hearing quite frequently that this is becoming more common," O'Donnell said Friday.

So the Albany airport is drawing up what O'Donnell calls an "action plan" for stranded aircraft, "aircraft that are off the gate, off the jet bridge, and where passengers can't deplane."

The plan draws on parts of existing emergency and other procedures, and the goal is to make everyone involved -- the airlines, the airport operations center, pilots, police and fire crews, even the building and maintenance departments -- aware of the alternatives available when take-offs are delayed.

"It gives them the liberty to act," O'Donnell said. "We want to disburse those resources to bring the passengers back to the gate, where there are restroom facilities, water and refreshments."

O'Donnell believes that at an airport such as Albany, no one should have to sit on a delayed plane for more than 30 minutes.

The airport will do its part to get the plane back to the gate or, if there is no open gate, take shuttle buses to the plane.

Because Albany isn't a congested hub airport, flights can make it back to the head of the line on the runway fairly quickly.

"Ramp traffic at Albany is minimal" compared to major hubs, said Michael McCabe, president of Advantage Travel Inc. in Albany, referring to the number of flights traveling to and from terminal gates. He called O'Donnell's initiative "a good idea."

But sometimes delays are beyond an airport's control.

When the problem is weather, pilots may not know when or if they can take off. A "hold" on flights by air traffic controllers into a major airport might be lifted at any time, requiring the plane to be airborne in 10 minutes, said McCabe, who once worked for a regional carrier at Albany.

"The ceiling might lift, the visibility might improve," and flights have to be ready to go, he said.

McCabe believes a passenger bill of rights is likely to be passed by Congress that would set standards for airlines to meet.

Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines, the largest carrier at Albany, has a goal of "never having customers waiting on board any more than two hours," said airline spokeswoman Paula Berg.

"At certain airports, where airplanes get in line and can't get out," that goal can be missed. But she said Southwest seeks to keep its customers informed, with accurate, frequent updates on their flights.

The carrier also sees no need for a passenger bill of rights. The need to satisfy the customer is more effective than universal regulations, Berg said.

But for those situations where the airport can make a difference, O'Donnell said he wants to be prepared.

"I only wish the larger airports would be engaging in this," he said.

Eric Anderson can be reached at 454-5323 or by e-mail at .

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