Washington Notebook: Flight chaos review
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbit will convene a forum on Nov. 30 at DOT headquarters to discuss ways to better deal with aircraft that have to be diverted to alternate airports due to bad weather.
The announcement comes in the wake of the surprise snow storm Oct. 29 that forced 23 flights to be routed to Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn. Six of the flights were flown by JetBlue and, in at least one case, passengers were stuck on the tarmac for 7.5 hours.
According to news accounts at the time, tensions between the cabin crew and passengers grew as conditions worsened, with babies crying and adults yelling to get off the plane. Lavatories had stopped working and there was no food. At one point, the frustrated pilot asked for police support on the Airbus A320. Such hardships were supposed to be eliminated by recent rules that require passengers to be let off planes after three hours or face fines of as much as $27,500 a person.
As many as 1,500 people were stranded at the airport overnight. American Airlines is also being investigated by the Department of Transportation for possibly violating passengers’ rights.
But it’s likely that the investigation will find that the airlines are not at fault. The problem is the lack of coordination between the air traffic control system and airports. Air traffic controllers could be diverting aircraft to other airports that may not be able to handle the extra traffic, either because of weather-related disruptions on the ground or lack of sufficient personnel or equipment.
In Hartford, sporadic power outages made refueling and operation of jet bridges difficult. Airport officials said their resources were stretched to the limit.
The DOT forum will include air traffic controllers, pilots, aircraft dispatchers, airport operators, and officials from other government agencies and the aviation community. Participants will discuss factors that influence diversion decisions and airport capacity during bad weather situations, including the status of navigation equipment, aircraft parking and gate availability, Customs capacity, refueling and de-icing assets, jetway and air stair access, security and general ramp operations.
“We can’t control the weather, but we can improve the way diversions are handled,” Babbitt said. The FAA is proposing a new, Web-based airport status tool that would present real-time information about each airport during a severe weather event to help airlines make decisions about where to divert. The agency also wants to include more airports in daily strategic planning conference calls during severe weather events to improve the information flow about which airports can accommodate diversions and is encouraging airports to develop contingency plans.
Cooperative planning is long overdue, but the idea of trying to find a more holistic solution is characteristic of the Obama administration’s problem-solving approach.
In many ways, the problems resemble the type of contingency planning that supply chain professionals are accustomed to when freight has to be diverted for weather or other types of reasons.
The FAA should consider consulting with U.S. Customs and Border Protection too. Several years ago, it partnered with industry to develop an online system for all modes, known as Unified Business Resumption Messaging, to provide instant alerts and up-to-date information if an event occurs that could delay the flow of trade through a port of entry. The system allows transportation users and providers to learn which ports are affected, alternative routes, projected disruption periods and ports where CBP will have adequate staffing to handle additional volumes.
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