Tarmac delays an image problem for Conn. airport

Nov. 7, 2011
Passengers on at least four planes sat on the tarmac at Connecticut's Bradley Airport for seven hours or more on October 29 when the autumn snowstorm hit the Northeast

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The headlines were brutal: "126 Trapped on Plane 7 Hours." ''Another Fiasco at Bradley."

Passengers on at least four planes sat on the tarmac at Connecticut's Bradley Airport for seven hours or more Oct. 29 when the autumn snowstorm hit the Northeast, marking the second time in less than two years that Bradley has made news because passengers were stranded on the tarmac.

Air traffic controllers diverted 28 planes to Bradley because of the storm. Five were able to refuel and take off.

For those stuck at Bradley, what waited for them when they deplaned was worse in some ways: Stuck in an airport overnight without heat, no access to luggage carrying clean clothes and toiletries, no security.

"The airport was very, very cold and there didn't seem to be anyone in charge," said Elizabeth Halasz of Miami, a former flight attendant who was aboard the JetBlue flight.

The debacle raised anew questions about whether the smaller regional airport is adequately prepared for future storms, when more planes will surely be diverted. And the delays touched off more national debate, this time about the need for improved communication between airports and airlines, the type of conversations that determine when passengers can disembark.

It's far from the kind of publicity Connecticut officials were seeking for the state's flagship airport, located about halfway between the capital of Hartford and Springfield, Mass., as they work to overhaul operations with a new airport authority and attract more business.

"All bad publicity is not good. So does it hurt Hartford as an airport? Of course it does, because people will try to avoid it if they can," said state Sen. Gary LeBeau, a Democrat from East Hartford who's co-chairman of the General Assembly's Commerce Committee.

"It's the opposite of what we want, which is good marketing."

The first problem for Bradley came in June 2010, when about 300 people aboard a diverted trans-Atlantic flight, originally from London to Newark, were marooned for four hours. Some fell ill from the heat. The delay prompted calls to add international travel to a federal rule limiting how long airlines can keep passengers on board.

Last weekend, one JetBlue flight from Florida and headed to New Jersey was stranded at Bradley for more than seven and a half hours. It seemed as if the airport lacked enough people on the ground to get the passengers off the plane, said Elizabeth Halasz of Miami, a former flight attendant who was aboard the plane.

While the experience of being trapped aboard the plane more nearly eight hours was difficult, Halasz said the saga worsened once passengers left the plane. They had to camp out on cots inside the airport, which had no heat. Elderly passengers, she said, were freezing, and no one had access to their luggage until early the next morning to pull out extra clothing.

The only restaurants open were a McDonald's and a Dunkin' Donuts. Both, she said, only accepted credit cards because they had no cash to make change. She said there was also no security, prompting Halasz to drag her cot to hallway outside a hotel that's attached to the airport, thinking that would be the safest place to stay.

"For the elderly, they were very frightened," she said.

State Rep. Antonio Guerrera, a Democrat from Rocky Hill who's co-chairman of the legislature's Transportation Committee, said he plans to call a legislative hearing to review what happened.

"Something went wrong, there's no doubt about it. Seven hours on a plane, stranded there, is not a healthy situation. ... I'm not happy about this," he said.

The diversion of so many flights by federal air traffic controllers was "an unprecedented set of circumstances," said Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart.

"No one can predict situations like this, I know that," Guerrera said, "I don't want to be a Monday morning quarterback. But the point is, things like this do happen and ... we should be prepared for emergency situations."

A new airport authority was created this year to oversee operations at Bradley and try to attract more flights, carriers and businesses, but it doesn't take control until January. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said officials at the authority will examine the incident.

Malloy, who trekked out to the airport the night passengers were stranded to hand out cots, points out that extraordinary circumstances were at play.

"Everyone take a deep breath," he said. "The vast majority of people were grateful to be safe."

It's not clear who's at fault.

The airlines determine when passengers are allowed to get off the plane, said Debby McElroy, executive vice president of the Airports Council International, an association of the world's airports. Under federal rules, the airline is supposed to offer passengers the opportunity leave no later than three hours on the tarmac for domestic flights, four hours for international ones. It's the role of the airport, she said, to offer help when the airline makes that decision.

Airlines typically handle ground operations, too, she said. And airports usually don't own air stairs and tow bars — things the JetBlue pilot ultimately sought help from Bradley's control tower staff to obtain, according to a recording of their communications.

The process becomes more complicated when an airline diverts a plane to an airport where the airline has no presence. (JetBlue does regularly fly to Bradley.) McElroy said there needs to be better communication between airlines and airports about their contingency plans, especially when a flight is diverted.

Both JetBlue and Bradley have declined to comment beyond prepared statements, pending investigations. JetBlue apologized to customers. Halasz said she ultimately received a refund and two free round-trip flights, after initially receiving $100 in compensation.

Smaller airports like Bradley need to have the ability to turn away flights without having to close down the airport, McElroy said.

"The airport needs to have the ability to say no more; resources are strained right now," she said. "The airports should not be set up for failure, either by the airlines or the FAA."

There are efforts under way to put together guidebooks for airports on the best practices for handling emergency situations and irregular operations, said Pam Keidel-Adams, managing director for the airport consulting firm Landrum & Brown, based in Phoenix. She said the delays at Bradley highlight how there are national issues with how airlines and airports deal with emergencies.

"It's an airport and an airline issue," she said. "You just can't blame one or the other. It has to be more coordination."

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