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Tarmac Delays Threaten Summer Travel Chaos

March 19, 2010 By: George Dooley

In a blistering indictment of airline policy on tarmac delays, Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business travel Coalition (BTC) urged both airlines and the Department of Transportation (DOT) to take immediate, positive steps to deal with tarmac delays. “The alternative to these positive steps is likely to be chaos, a further erosion of the already weak travel market and further painful job losses," he said. "It’s time for common sense to prevail – and we hope it will.

“The airlines – which cannot hope to help either themselves or their customers by permitting massive problems to disrupt the coming peak travel season – should collectively petition DOT for a one-year delay in the proposed rules,” Mitchell continued, warning of chaos during the summer 2010 travel season compounded by congestion in New York metropolitan airports and runway construction at JFK.

“Unfortunately, the extended tarmac delay is not a problem some airlines choose to make a priority,” Mitchell said in his analysis of the problem. “A national guideline, with attendant fines, will make it such a problem and, therefore, a necessity for airlines to address.”

The core problem of tarmac delays has not been weather, Mitchell said, but that the “airlines have been unwilling to undertake the broad-based flight rescheduling and fundamental reengineering of process and procedure that are required to manage such operations effectively.”

Mitchell cites the recent example of a multi-hour Virgin America flight as a case in point. “The consequences for passengers aboard Virgin America flight 404 en route from LAX to JFK, and diverted because of heavy rain and strong winds to Stewart airport 90 miles north of New York City, represents 'Exhibit A' in the case for government-sanctioned tarmac-delay guidelines.” The flight reportedly took a total of 16 hours, including more than four hours of a tarmac delay.

“Knowing they were flying into an extremely troublesome weather system it would appear contingency plans on many levels were not emplaced by Virgin America, including for extra provisions of food and water. Moreover, flight attendants were not provided adequate training to manage this irregular operation successfully,” Mitchell said. The airline has compensated passengers for the delays.

The new DOT rules go into effect April 29 after a 120-day notice. It requires U.S. airlines to provide passengers an opportunity to deplane after three hours of an extended tarmac delay, on most commercial aircraft, providing it is safe and operationally feasible to do so. Mitchell notes that the BTC cautioned the DOT earlier this year that a 120-day implementation period was entirely inadequate. “Likewise, BTC encouraged airlines to finally step up and seriously address passenger problems," Mitchell said. "Nothing has happened.”

Mitchell also asks if the airlines have not rolled out a “preemptive airline industry public relations strategy” ahead of a potentially troublesome spring and summer travel season “where finger-pointing could abound.” He said the airlines are “pre-blaming DOT for coming travel disruptions resulting from flight-cancellation decisions in the face of potential $27,500 per-passenger fines for extended tarmac delays, especially in the New York City market. Airlines, however, cannot say they were not warned.

“Airlines were cautioned in multiple Congressional testimonies beginning in 1999 that if they did not address passenger concerns about long tarmac holds someone would endeavor to do so for them, and the outcome might not be desirable," Mitchell continued. "So to cry foul now rings hollow. The problem isn’t the reality of weather-related irregular operations, which are inevitable.”

In his analysis, Mitchell urges the airlines to be more responsive to the public's demand for change. “To be fair the $27,500 maximum fine per passenger for airlines that violate its three hour rule – to be enforced on the basis of subjective determination by DOT staff – seems extraordinarily high," he said. "Moreover, DOT’s decision to allow the airlines only 120 days to adjust system-wide schedules and re-engineer their many and complex procedures was unrealistic in all circumstances”

Mitchell also believes that the problem of tarmac delays are related to scheduled runway construction at JFK that is expected to delay flights this summer. “Taken together, delays or disruptions at New York’s three major airports are directly or indirectly responsible for nearly 75 percent of delays across the entire U.S. system,” he said. “That reality, along with runway construction at JFK and the fact that the U.S. does not need further disruptions to an economy struggling towards recovery means that the airlines and the DOT need to act – now -- to assure that summer travel plans are not disrupted and that customer concerns about tarmac delays are dealt with in a responsible way.

“In our opinion, the airlines – which cannot hope to help either themselves or their customers by permitting massive problems to disrupt the coming peak travel season – should collectively petition the DOT for a one-year delay in the proposed rules," Mitchell continued. "In doing so, they should make clear that they are prepared, with the assistance of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ), to undertake the collective depeaking of New York airport schedules which is required and to undertake the comprehensive analysis and re-engineering of their processes and procedures needed to make three-hour compliance possible by April of 2011.

“The alternative to this common sense approach is more of the conflict which seems to characterize every part of our society --- and which in this case will adversely impact the airlines themselves, their customers and the U.S. economy, “ Mitchell said, noting that both airlines and the DOT will play the blame game. The DOT won widespread consumer support for its new three-hour tarmac delay policy.

“The airlines will use media outlets to blame a high level of cancellations on the new DOT rule," he continued. "But they will neglect to say that the real cause is having scheduled more flights than the airports are able to accommodate. DOT will respond that the airlines have scheduling options to allow them to avoid the $27,500 per passenger fines. While that is certainly true, DOT will neglect to say that giving the airlines only 120 days to reengineer their systems was unrealistic and that is was particularly so given construction at JFK.”

“Meanwhile, airlines will no doubt become much more proactive about canceling flights in threatening weather conditions," Mitchell said. "Because proactively canceling flights is an imperfect and inefficient proxy for revising schedules and re-engineering processes, many airline customers will find their travel plans disrupted. New complexities such as airline service unbundling will make it more difficult for them (consumers) to find alternatives. A passenger who prepaid for a variety of ancillary services, and who suddenly has to fly on another carrier, will be stuck endeavoring, probably unsuccessfully, to secure refunds. Airlines will be blamed for dismissing their customers’ concerns. DOT will be blamed for doing too little by some and for doing too much by others. Congress will be blamed for failing to find the right answer – and many more Americans will decide travel is a hassle, and decide to stay home."

Despite the problems, Mitchell believes there is still time to act. “Airlines need to abandon their preemptive blame-game, public relations strategy and let the DOT know they are ready to work cooperatively towards a solution," he said. "DOT needs to consider the welfare of airline customers and make the most of the consumer goodwill stemming from its proactive approach to the problem of tarmac delay to fashion a solution that will assure the new rule’s long-term success.”

Mitchell also urges common sense solutions to the New York airport problems. “All parties need to recognize that the schedule draw-downs required at the New York airports cannot, for competitive and legal reasons, be accomplished by the airlines alone," he concluded. "Thus, PANYNJ should take a leadership role, with support from the governors of New Jersey and New York as well as the mayor of New York City. PANYNJ needs to make the case for DOT-administered and Department of Justice-monitored meetings among airlines to adjust schedules.”



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