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Department of Transportation Investigates Lengthy Tarmac Delay

August 24, 2009 By: George Dooley Travel Agent

“There was a complete lack of common sense here,” Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood said as the DOT released the results of its probe of a six-hour ,August 8 Continental Airlines tarmac delay. “It’s no wonder the flying public is so angry and frustrated.”

The traveling public may be even angrier with news that Sun Country Airlines flight 242, which was bound for Minneapolis on Friday, August 21, spent nearly six hours on the tarmac at New York's JFK Airport. Worse,  Delta Air Lines flight 1140 was also reportedly delayed for four hours in New York on a flight bound for Minnesota.

In fact the DOT’s own data suggests that tarmac delays are a major problem with as many as 615 tarmac delays reported since January for at least three hours, says the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In June alone, 278 flights reportedly spent more than three hours on the tarmac.

The problem is so bad that pressure is mounting for Congressional action to force airlines to act.  Industry groups including ASTA and the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) are pushing for action. The carriers could also face a Congressional investigation this fall.

The DOT investigation into the August 8 tarmac delay by Continental Airlines on a flight operated by ExpressJet Airlines notes  that passengers were stranded in a plane on the ground in Rochester, MN from 12:28 a.m. to about 6 a.m. with only pretzels provided by the carrier to eat.

The airline blamed runway construction in the Twin Cities and bad weather in New York for the delay.

“We have determined that the Express Jet crew was not at fault. In fact, the flight crew repeatedly tried to get permission to deplane the passengers at the airport or obtain a bus for them,” Secretary LaHood said.

“The local representative of Mesaba Airlines improperly refused the requests of the captain to let her passengers off the plane. The representative incorrectly said that the airport was closed to passengers for security reasons, which led to this nightmare for those stuck on the plane,” he said.

Mesaba is a wholly owned subsidiary of Northwest Airlines, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines.

The DOT said the representative of Mesaba – the only carrier able to assist Continental at the airport – said that the airport was closed to passengers, apparently because there was no one from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) available to screen passengers. In fact, TSA procedures allow passengers to get off the plane, enter the terminal and re-board without being screened again as long as they remain in a sterile area.

The DOT’s Aviation Enforcement Office is considering the appropriate action to take against Mesaba . The DOT says it  has proposed regulations requiring airlines to adopt contingency plans for lengthy tarmac delays and to incorporate these plans in their contract of carriage. The DOT said it has asked for comment on whether it should set a uniform standard of time after which carriers would be required to allow passengers to deplane. The findings from this investigation will be used to help formulate a final rule that will provide better protection for airline passengers, the DOT said.

Responding to the  new delays, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) issued a  statement regarding Minneapolis-bound flights Sun Country 242 and Delta 1140 which experienced extended ground delays at JFK Friday for 5-1/2 and 4 hours respectively.

The BTC is in the midst of a travel and airline industry-wide survey and analysis regarding extended ground delays and the potential efficacy of proposed Senate legislation (S.1451) that would allow passengers to disembark after 3 hours.

The BTC said the survey is not complete and will not be published until September, but  offered several points in light of the  Rochester, MN and NYC ground delays.

“ Uneven Progress. After 10 years of Congressional pressure on airlines as well as highly unfavorable press reports of nightmarish delays and conditions for passengers, the response by the airline industry has been uneven, as confirmed in U.S. DOT Inspector General reports to Congress. While some airlines have taken limited positive steps on behalf of their customers, at the industry-level the airlines appear either unwilling or unable to fix this extended ground delay problem.”

 “Nature of Problem. To focus the debate on root causes, such as bad weather or antiquated ATC technology, is to avoid discussing the real problem which is how airlines respond to irregular operations. Likewise, to blame mishaps on the poor judgment of individual airline employees, as was done in the Rochester, MN case, is to miss the larger, structural leadership failure at the individual airline and industry levels,” BTC said.

“It would appear that unstoppable momentum is building behind passenger rights legislation. The airline industry has a closing window-of-opportunity to cast aside its unproductive strategy and image as the industry of “NO” and constructively engage the proponents of passenger rights legislation. The Air Transport Association and its member airlines have been invited to participate in a September 22 Passenger Rights Stakeholder Hearing in Washington, DC ( It would be prudent for the airlines to join the discussion.”

Sun Country is refunding tickets for the 100-plus customers on the delayed flight and has revised its policy.

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