Air Transport World

Passengers stranded: will US airlines be forced to comply with new regulations on extended ground delays?(OPERATIONS)

WHEN SEVERE weather hits, airlines--which generally gear their operational procedures toward keeping flights on schedule--engage in critical cost-benefit analyses. They must decide whether to cancel flights and deal with the consequences or attempt to keep aircraft moving despite a less-than-ideal operating environment. There are no easy answers, and miscalculations can lead to disastrous situations in which passengers are stranded for hours at a time in aircraft sitting on the tarmac.

In the worst of these scenarios, such as Northwest Airlines' December 1999 debacle in Detroit and JetBlue Airways' February 2007 meltdown at New York JFK, the fallout from not making the right decisions can be quite serious: A pubic relations nightmare in which angry passengers tell TV talk shows stories of being stuck for hours and hours on foul-smelling aircraft with no food and water, often leading to wrathful condemnations by lawmakers threatening to impose strict regulations on airlines.

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In the US at both the state and federal levels, "passenger rights" advocates appear to be gaining traction and new rules governing extended ground delays are being enacted or strongly considered. Carriers fear that such regulations will limit their operational flexibility and make already bad situations worse. Meanwhile, they say they are upgrading their decision-making processes to avoid such fiascos in the first place.

Angry Passengers On Dec. 29, 2006, California real estate agent Kate Hanni was asleep aboard an American Airlines flight en route from San Francisco to Mobile. She awoke as the aircraft was landing at Austin Bergstrom, to which it had been diverted owing to a winter storm, and for the next 9 hr. 17 min. was among hundreds of passengers stuck onboard several planes on the Austin tarmac. …

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