This summer, airports and airlines say they’re mission-ready, with heavily fortified defenses against tarmac delays: pretzels and water.
Under a new federal rule, passengers must be offered water and snacks after two hours of sitting without taking off or reaching a gate, and under most circumstances everyone has to have the chance to get off a plane if it’s marooned for three hours. If airlines don’t comply, fines can be huge—up to $27,000 per passenger, or about $4 million on a typical planeload of 150 people.
Airlines and airports have elaborate plans, stocking up on bottled water and pretzels at some airports, even deploying new buses, vans and “drive-by gates” to quickly unload passengers who want to get off long-delayed flights. Foremost among the changes, airlines say they will cancel more flights to lessen the chances that planes will sit without taking off or finding an open gate.
Travelers will notice changes quickly as the summer travel season—and thunderstorm season—both heat up.
Continental Airlines Inc., for example, whose chief executive called the new rule “very stupid,” nonetheless has set up areas to unload passengers at hub airports so it won’t need to send flights back to gates. In Newark, N.J., the airline has set up an area on the north side of the airport where planes can taxi, and park and ground workers can stage “rescue missions,” says Holden Shannon, Continental’s senior vice president of system operations and real estate.
Stairs are rolled up to planes and vans and trucks drive up to transport passengers back to terminals. “We can service 14 aircraft in an area we call the ballpark,” Mr. Shannon says.
Many of the systems that track flights at Continental are now set to alert officials when a plane sits for 90 minutes, Mr. Shannon says. “That’s when we start mobilizing pretzels and water,” he says. For planes waiting to take off, flight attendants will serve bottled water and pretzels onboard for regular in-flight service. If the flight is diverted to another airport by storms or is simply waiting for a long period to get to a gate after landing, Continental ground employees will have supplies of water and pretzels to deliver to aircraft.
Most passengers don’t want to get off long-delayed flights because that aircraft may be their best bet to get where they want to go. But some do, and the new rule requires airlines to get them off grounded flights, as long as the captain thinks it’s safe and air-traffic controllers say it won’t disrupt operations. (But passengers who bail shouldn’t expect to take their checked baggage with them.)
Another major exemption: The rule doesn’t apply to small airports, defined by the Department of Transportation as servicing less then 0.25% of annual U.S. passengers, or roughly two million people. That means that had it been in effect last August, the tarmac delay rule actually wouldn’t have applied to the Continental Express flight diverted to Rochester, Minn., that sat overnight fully loaded with passengers and triggered outrage leading to the new rule. The DOT on Wednesday proposed including small airports in the tarmac delay rule, but that won’t take effect for six months at the earliest.
Some airports themselves are making preparations to better handle stranded flights. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, for example, purchased more than $800,000 worth of equipment to help airlines comply with the new tarmac-delay rule. The airport has covered staircases for planes and a giant bus capable of carrying 100 people—similar to buses used in Europe to unload passengers at remote parking stands for planes.
“If you are stuck, we can go out and get you,” said James Crites, executive vice president for operations at DFW.
Another alternative for planes: The airport took two gates at a satellite terminal abandoned by Delta Air Lines Inc. and created a “drive by” off-loading site. Planes can taxi up but don’t need to nose in and be pushed back, or shut down all engines. Jet-bridges reach out to aircraft, unload passengers and then pull back so planes can continue on without needing any workers on the ground.
“It’s like a McDonald’s drive-thru,” said Mr. Crites.
Summer travel is expected to pick up at least slightly this year, and with airline capacity still reduced by the recession, flights are expected to be jampacked. Some airports will see significant increases. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major airports near New York City, estimated traffic at La Guardia Airport to be up 6.8% over Memorial Day weekend compared to last year.
Travelers are already paying much higher fares than last year. Continental, for example, said it filled a record high percentage of its seats in May and unit revenue surged an estimated 23% to 24%, a result of both an increase in traffic and higher fares.
With the euro weak, travel to Europe from the U.S. is expected to be popular, despite high-profile inconveniences like heavy flight cancellations from volcanic eruptions and labor union strife. Trans-Atlantic capacity on airlines is expected to be down slightly this summer, with 385 daily flights scheduled, down about three flights daily, according to Craig Jenks, a consultant to airlines and airports who tracks trans-Atlantic airline trends. But demand, fares and airline profits will all be higher this summer, he said, because tourism demand is “resurgent.”
FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt told a conference of airport executives in May that while he expects the nation’s air transportation system to work well this summer, he is worried about trouble spots where airline scheduling has clustered more flights together than air-traffic controllers can handle, forcing delays. Mr. Babbitt singled out Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco—all major hubs where slowdowns can affect flights across the country.
Among major airlines, the worst in on-time performance so far this year have been airlines with big operations in the New York area: jetBlue Airways Corp., AMR Corp.’s American, Continental and Delta. More than 10% of jetBlue’s flights have suffered delays of 45 minutes or longer, according to FlightStats, a flight-tracking company. Highest cancellation rate so far this year: American at 2.3% of its flights. The best big airlines in on-time performance in 2010 so far: Alaska, United and US Airways.