FAA says changes coming to prevent tarmac delays

Administration officials promised Wednesday to make changes before the Christmas travel season in an effort to prevent airline passengers from being trapped for hours on a tarmac with no way to reach an airport gate.

Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt hosted a forum with airlines, airports and government officials on ways to prevent a repeat of an incident in October.

Twenty-eight planes - seven were large international flights - arrived unexpectedly at Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 29 during a freak snowstorm. The planes were forced to divert because weather and equipment problems prevented them from landing at New York-area airports.

Many of the flights sat on the ground for hours before they could either refuel and depart or unload their passengers. The captain of JetBlue Flight 504 begged for help to get his plane to a gate, saying passengers were becoming unruly and he had paraplegic and diabetic passengers who needed to get off.

Within the next week, the FAA will begin including airports in national and regional conference calls they hold with airlines several times a day to discuss problems that are affecting the flow of air traffic. The agency is also launching a hotline and a webpage for airports to alert the FAA and airlines of problems on the ground, such as difficulties with snow removal and deicing equipment or a shortage of available gates, Babbitt said.

Much of the chaos during the Hartford incident could have been mitigated by better communication among airlines, airports and air traffic controllers, Babbitt said.

A Transportation Department rule implemented in April 2010 limits tarmac delays to a maximum of three hours before airlines must allow passengers to get off the plane. Airlines that exceed the time limit can face fines of up to $27,500 per person. While Babbitt's comments seemed to relieve airlines of responsibility for the Oct. 29 incident, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood emphasized that his department's investigations into the flights that exceeded the limit aren't yet complete.

Airlines, which opposed the three-hour rule, say there are a lot of reasons for extended tarmac delays, most related to airport congestion created by poor weather. If planes are held at gates because poor weather prevents or slows departures, then incoming flights have trouble finding a free gate. Sometimes planes sitting for hours in line waiting to take off are unable to return to gates where new planes have taken their place.