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Winter storm creates logjam at Charlotte's airport

By Steve Lyttle
slyttle@charlotteobserver.com

Federal transportation officials will investigate what caused a massive traffic jam on Charlotte-Douglas International Airport runways Saturday night that forced passengers to sit in jets on the tarmac for several hours.

Hundreds of travelers were stranded overnight at the airport because they missed connecting flights.

Several passengers said they waited more than two hours for their planes to taxi to the gates. The gates were not accessible because outbound jets were being de-iced, according to reports from passengers.

One passenger said the pilot on his flight told travelers the logjam resulted because air traffic controllers failed to enact a ground stop, which would have prevented takeoffs and departures during the bad weather.

Some passengers pointed fingers at the Federal Aviation Administration, but a spokeswoman for the FAA said air traffic is under the jurisdiction of the federal Department of Transportation. If so, the airlines and Charlotte’s airport were largely spectators to what happened.

Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the DOT, said his department “will investigate these tarmac delays, as we do with all reported tarmac delays over the limit in our rules.”

Federal aviation rules enacted three years ago, following an incident in which passengers on a jet sat for six hours on the tarmac at a Minnesota airport, limit the wait on domestic flights to three hours.

The airlines pay the penalty for violating the three-hour rule, as they can be fined $27,500 per passenger.

One official contacted Monday, asking not to be identified, said some of the delays probably exceeded three hours Saturday night.

“My pilot said he had never seen anything like this in 27 years of flying,” said passenger Chuck Cavalaris, of Knoxville, Tenn. He was among the many whose arrival at the gate was delayed, forcing him to spend the night at the airport.

According to passengers, the problem seemed to peak around 6:30 p.m.

Snow started falling about 4 p.m. at the airport, and 2 inches fell in less than 45 minutes. Snow continued to fall lightly for several hours afterward, and it forced airport personnel to de-ice jets that were at the gates, preparing for departure.

“The snow really came down hard, and it was a bad situation for de-icing,” said Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways.

By 7 p.m., from the accounts of several passengers, near-gridlock conditions existed for arriving flights.

Bob Wozniak said his plane landed about 7:10 p.m.

“I knew something was seriously wrong, as I gazed out my window and saw what appeared to be an endless amount of plans in front of us, littered about the taxiways, waiting to get to their gates,” Wozniak said.

He said his jet slowly crept toward the gate, taking 2 1/2 hours to get there after landing. During all this, Wozniak said, planes continued landing.

“As another plane would land, the tower would have to find another place to park them in a waiting pattern to get to the terminal,” he said.

One passenger said the pilot on his plane said air traffic controllers were “supposed to install ground stops. They lifted the ground stops, and they let the airplanes continue to arrive here.”

A ground stop is ordered by flight controllers in bad weather. It prevents plans from landing or taking off and is used in the case of severe thunderstorms, strong winds, fog, or wintry precipitation.

Once the backlog was cleared away on the tarmac, the problem shifted to the concourse. Hundreds of passengers were stuck in Charlotte for the night, having missed connecting flights.

Mohr said US Airways and airport officials did all they could to help passengers.

“Obviously, we felt bad for what happened,” Mohr said. “Our primary responsibility is the well-being of passengers.”

She said US Airways and airport personnel assigned staff members to spend the night at the airport, to help find cots, blankets and food for stranded passengers. Those involved in the effort include Terri Pope, US Airways’ Charlotte hub vice present, Mohr said.

US Airways then scheduled additional flights Sunday, to help passengers get on their way, Mohr added.

But some passengers said the overnight airport conditions were harsh.

“At some point, the Red Cross was brought in to distribute blankets and cots, but this was not until 3 in the morning,” Wozniak said. “And they definitely did not bring enough supplies. Most of us did not even know that the Red Cross was on site, because there was no information given to us.”

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