AIN Blog: Torqued: DOT Must Abandon Band-Aid Approach To Fix System Breakdown

 - December 15, 2011, 5:36 PM

You would think that by now JetBlue would have learned its lesson from the February snowstorm of 2007. After all, how many airlines have the distinction of prompting a rulemaking barring them from holding passengers hostage for more than three hours or face fines up to $27,500 per passenger?

While a number of airlines kept passengers locked up for hours, one JetBlue flight to Aruba made the airline the poster child for airline indifference to intolerable cabin conditions, holding passengers on the tarmac at Hartford International Airport for more than 10 hours. Passengers have gotten used to a lot of discomfort courtesy of the airlines. But hours and hours of no working toilets with a full flight? There’s no excuse–for the airline, the FAA or the airport.

It is no wonder then that long after the snows of February 2007 had melted away, outrage persisted after JetBlue held passengers for 11 hours on the tarmac at JFK–long after the “food” (those blue chips and cookies hardly qualify as food) was gone and the toilets began overflowing. How else could we end up with potential penalties for leaving passengers on the ground too long that could easily trump the maximum penalty for a one-time safety violation by an airline?

While a bill languished for years in Congress, due in part to strong opposition from the airline industry, but also because bills do a lot of languishing in Congress these days, the Department of Transportation finally issued rules establishing a so-called Passenger Bill of Rights in 2009 and a new “beefed up” version, which took effect this past August.

The DOT rules, which were supposed to limit tarmac delays to three hours for domestic airlines and four hours for foreign ones, and which were supposed to require airlines to have adequate food, water and toilet facilities, were completely inadequate when put to the test during this past October’s snowstorm in the Northeast. 

DOT Must Rein in the FAA, Airports

Why would the DOT’s rules–aimed entirely at the airlines–succeed in fixing a systemic problem that is only partly attributable to or controllable by the airlines? The DOT can fine the airlines into oblivion, but it will not fix the FAA’s role in creating the mess (really, is a little better planning by that agency in anticipation of a snowstorm too much to ask?) or the airports’ apparent inability to get stranded passengers out of a snowbound airplane before they spend hours and hours on the ground.

Fixing the FAA’s role in diverting aircraft to airports that are saturated beyond their limits would seem like the natural responsibility of the federal department that is nominally the parent of the FAA. Why don’t the DOT and FAA work together on–here is a novel approach in the era of Safety Management Systems–a systemic fix? But, alas, one of the DOT’s dirty little secrets is that it has absolutely no control over the FAA. Secretary Ray LaHood, like all his predecessors, has about as much chance of effecting change at the FAA as, say Congress, has of agreeing on just about anything. 

So DOT rules focus, myopically, on the airlines alone. And just as the FAA’s role in creating these messes was left unscrutinized, no attempt was made to bring in the third prong of the system that bears the brunt of the fault: the airports. That’s a band-aid approach to a systemic problem if ever there was one! But that does not let the airports off the hook at all. Surely Hartford International Airport had time from 2007–when the issue first drew intense media scrutiny–to develop contingency plans on its own.  

While Hartford may have dithered, some airports stepped into the breach and developed their own plans to prevent passengers from sitting for hours and hours without adequate food, water or bathroom facilities. I know Boston Logan did.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Logan is my hometown airport. Not only am I partial to the facility, but I also help out, pro bono, on their emergency drills. But all the credit here goes to Logan’s management team and employees who came up with the plans and procedures to deal with a weather emergency.

As I understand it, if ATC diverts airplanes to Logan, it notifies Massport’s operations supervisor, who logs and tracks the airplanes’ time on the ground. The ops supervisor also makes other appropriate notifications and contacts the pilots, as necessary. If the airlines–for whatever reason–are not able to arrange for the disembarking of their own passengers within three hours for domestic flights or four hours for foreign flights, Massport will assist the airlines by providing stairs and buses to transport the passengers to the terminal. I am confident that what happened at Hartford this past October would not happen in Boston. 

The one heartening piece of news I read recently was that the FAA is finally going to study its own role in diverting aircraft, especially to saturated airports. That is good news! You cannot fix a problem if you don’t recognize you have a role in it. But, unfortunately, the FAA is good at studying, and studying, and studying problems. Ad infinitum sometimes. Dare I say, ad nauseam, too. But it is often somewhat less good at actually fixing those problems. 

So, while hope springs eternal, I am not at all convinced that we will see any significant changes by the next major snowstorm, which could be just around the corner as I write. So my advice to travelers who value their time and comfort is, fly privately whenever you can this winter.

But if you must fly commercial, pack some extra protein bars, buy water at the airport after going through the security check…and, yes, you may also want to pack a few of those adult diapers. Have a nice trip!