Airlines, Airport Communication Would Ease Delays, FAA Says

Airlines and airports must improve communications during storms to prevent more incidents of planes becoming stranded for hours on tarmacs, U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said.

Airlines “began to make independent decisions” about diverting flights from New York area airports during an Oct. 29 snowstorm, Babbitt said at a forum in Washington today. Those decisions contributed to JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) planes becoming stuck for as long as 7 1/2 hours on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut, he said.

“No airline knew what the other airlines were doing,” Babbitt said.

Airports should develop storm contingency plans, as airlines are required to have, to reduce tarmac delays, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Huerta said at the forum.

The agency also recommends developing a website to be used in emergencies; organizing conference calls among airlines, airports and government officials during storms; and clearly marking diverted flights to prevent confusion among airports and air-traffic controllers, Huerta said.

Industry representatives are meeting at the forum to discuss and revise the recommendations.

One hundred thirty-four flights were diverted during the October storm, including 28 to Bradley, overwhelming the airport’s facilities and personnel, Babbitt said.

‘Set Up’

“Bradley was set up to fail,” Deborah C. McElroy, a spokeswoman for Airports Council International-North America, a Washington-based trade group, said in an interview today. “Airports need to be more empowered and more involved.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is investigating the delays that day. Scheduled maintenence and replacement of FAA navigation equipment at John F. Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports continued with the storm approaching, contributing to the problems, Babbitt said.

The transportation department this month fined AMR Corp. (AMR)’s American Eagle $900,000 for stranding passengers on 15 planes at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for more than three hours on the U.S. Memorial Day weekend in May.

The negotiated penalty was the first fine under a U.S. tarmac-delay rule that took effect in April 2010. The rule, expanded to non-U.S.-based airlines in August, subjects airlines to fines of as much as $27,500 per passenger for flights that sit outside the gate for more than three hours.

Tarmac delays of more than three hours dropped to 20 in the year after the rule was implemented, compared with 693 in the year before the rule, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at the forum.

A study by the Government Accountability Office, released in September, said the rule has made it more likely that airlines will cancel flights before delays reach the three-hour mark.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Bykowicz in Washington at jbykowicz@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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