Delays Keep Fliers Waiting and Guessing

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John Schneyer
Boca Consultants

Delays Keep Fliers Waiting and Guessing

Published: August 11, 2008

AS this is being written, a big thunderstorm is crashing outside, and my two parrots are worked up downstairs.

Chris Gash

“Bye-bye!” the big macaw is screaming, using words he says when alarmed.

“It’s raining!” the little African gray is repeating shrilly.

I have my own reaction to inclement weather. I check out the airport status maps on And sure enough, as thunderstorms rolled into the Northeast on Monday morning, a cluster of red dots covered the New York airports and beyond, indicating that major delays were building up.

For many passengers, the story is now familiar. Bad weather arrives, and planes sit on tarmacs for long periods of time while passengers fume.

“They taxied us out, and we’ve been sitting on the tarmac ever since,” Jennifer Wilson said by cellphone Monday afternoon from Virgin America Flight 224, stuck at Kennedy International Airport. “They start the engines, they move us, and then they kill them.”

When I spoke to Ms. Wilson, who was bound for San Francisco, the plane had already been sitting on the tarmac for four hours beyond its scheduled 9:10 a.m. departure time.

Because the plane was moving on the ground, “they didn’t let us get up to use the bathrooms till after 11,” she said. “We could be sitting here for five more hours, who knows?”

Extended waits on the tarmac have become increasingly frequent in the last 18 months as the air traffic system has been pushed to its limits, unable to cope with added traffic and delays. For background, consult, the Web site of the grass-roots coalition that was founded last year by Kate Hanni after thunderstorms kept her plane on the tarmac for nine hours in December 2006.

The coalition is pressing for federal legislation to force airlines to provide adequate food, water and information and to allow passengers to get off an idled flight after three hours.

The bathroom issue, incidentally, frequently comes up as planes full of passengers sit for hours waiting to take off.

Last Thursday night, passengers at the gate for US Airways Flight 2257 in Charlotte, N.C., were warned that the plane’s two toilets were not functioning properly and were advised to use terminal bathrooms before boarding, according to Dyann Domoracki, a passenger.

“It was only about an hour and a half flight to Pensacola, so everybody thought, ‘Oh well, no problem,’ ” Ms. Domoracki said.

But that turned into nearly four hours of waiting on the plane before the flight was finally canceled, when the crew had worked past its shift.

Ms. Domoracki said she understood that weather can disrupt an already stressed system, and that flight crews generally are doing the best they can. But this flight had no food and little water available, along with scant information, she said.

“Aside from physically beating us, I don’t think it could have been any worse,” Ms. Domoracki said with a laugh.

The plane, a 70-seat regional jet, made frequent starts and stops on the ground. “We seemed to be driving all around, like taking a tour of the airport,” she said. People did get up to use the bathrooms, but “the tanks were full, and after a while, the stench got worse,” she said.

After two and a half hours, the plane did return to a gate, but only to allow the authorities to remove two passengers who were accused of being disruptive. Ms. Domoracki said one woman had been speaking boisterously on a cellphone. Another, she said, “grabbed a flight attendant’s arm to get some water so she could take her medicine.”

James T. Olson, a spokesman for US Airways, said that Flight 2257 was delayed during “harsh weather” that caused “about 100 cancellations out of about 3,500 flights” nationally.

Both toilets were working, he said, adding that “passengers were using the lavs, even when the plane was taxiing.”

The two passengers who were removed “were essentially misbehaving,” he said. One, the cellphone talker, was not “following instructions,” he said. In the other case, he said, “there were some remarks made that the flight attendant felt intimidated and threatened by.”

It was impossible to do a regular beverage service on a plane making frequent moves, but “people who were asking for water were getting water,” he said.

Ms. Wilson’s flight, by the way, finally took off at 1:37 p.m., more than four hours late.

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