Airlines should be required to limit how long passengers have to wait out travel delays inside an airplane on the ground before being allowed to get off, the Transportation Department inspector general recommended Tuesday.
The recommendations follow two horrendous weather-related incidents last winter in which hundreds of passengers were confined aboard jetliners on airport tarmac for up to 10 1/2 hours.
Last Dec. 29, lightning storms and a tornado warning shut down the Dallas-Fort Worth airport several times causing American Airlines to divert more than 100 flights and stranding many of those passengers on board aircraft waiting to take off for as long as nine hours.
On Feb. 14, snow and ice in the northeast led to JetBlue Airways stranding hundreds of passengers on its planes on the tarmac at New York's Kennedy International for up to 10 1/2 hours.
At the request of Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, Inspector General Calvin L. Scovell III studied on-board delays and found four other incidents in 2007, three related to weather and one to a computer outage, that stranded passengers on waiting planes for nine hours, four hours, six hours and 10 hours.
He said the number of times passengers were confined to airplanes on the ground for more than five hours rose from 27 in the first seven months of 2006 to 44 in the comparable period this year. One- to two-hour delays climbed from 33,438 to 47,558.
Scovell blamed the problem on poor planning by the airlines and the airports and said their planning was still deficient.
"Both airline and airport contingency plans are limited in addressing long, on-board delays. In fact, we found there has been little improvement from what we reported in 2001 - that only a few airlines' contingency plans specified in any detail the efforts planned to get passengers off the aircraft when delayed for extended periods," Scovell said after reviewing the plans of 13 airlines and 13 airports.
He found that only two of the 13 airports "have a process for monitoring and mitigating long, on-board delays that involves contacting the airline to request a plan of action after an aircraft has remained for two hours on the tarmac."
Before the American and JetBlue incidents, only four of the 13 airlines had established time limits on the duration of tarmac delays, he said. After the winter incidents, five airlines - including American and JetBlue - put time limits on delays before letting passengers off, but five still do not.
Scovell said the existing time limits before letting passengers out range from 1.5 to five hours.
David Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing major U.S. airlines, said, "The majority of our members airlines have established time frames by which they will begin the process of deciding whether they will go back to a gate and deplane or continue on to their planned destinations."
"We are studying the inspector general's recommendations and look forward to meeting with the transportation secretary and the IG to discuss them further."
In a written statement, the Transportation Department said the IG report was "a thorough job ... (that) will help develop our response to this challenge."
Scovell recommended that the federal government require that scheduled airlines using aircraft with more than 30 passenger seats set such time limits. He also recommended that the government require large and medium-sized hub airports to monitor on-board delays and demand an action plan from airlines whenever a loaded plane has spent two hours on the tarmac.
The DOT inspector general is to look into the cause of the problems at JetBlue and American and how such incidents might be prevented in the future.
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