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FAA: Changes Coming to Prevent Tarmac Delays

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Obama administration officials promised Wednesday to make changes before the Christmas travel season aimed at preventing nightmare scenarios like the one in October when hundreds of passengers were trapped for hours on planes in Hartford, Conn., during a freak snowstorm.

“We can act fast,” Federal Aviation Administrator Randy Babbitt said as he and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood discussed the changes with reporters.

Babbitt described a disastrous scene at Bradley International Airport in which airliner tugs couldn’t get traction on the ice, power outages shut down luggage belts and other problems.

Much of the chaos might have been mitigated with better communication among airlines, airports and air traffic controllers, he said.

Planes crammed with hundreds of passengers on Oct. 29 could have been accommodated at other airports if airlines had known so many flights were going to Hartford, Babbitt said. Instead, travelers were stuck on planes, some for more than seven hours, after 28 flights were diverted to Bradley because of weather and equipment problems at New York area airports.

Transportation Department rules limit tarmac delays to a maximum of three hours before airlines must allow passengers to get off the plane. Airlines that exceed that limit face fines of up to $27,500 per person. But sometimes the lack of open gates or Customs officials make it impossible for airlines to let passengers disembark.

In the October storm, carriers only knew of their own diversions and not what other airlines were doing, Babbitt said No one, including controllers, had a complete picture of what was happening, Babbitt told over 100 aviation officials at a forum on tarmac delays hosted Wednesday by FAA and the Transportation Department.

“There is a lot of knowledge out there,” Babbitt said. “If everyone had access to the whole picture they wouldn’t have continued to send planes to (Bradley).”

The diversions overwhelmed Bradley, which has only 23 gates. The airport received 20 inches of snow during the storm, which marked the first time that area of Connecticut had received over an inch of snow in October in more than a century of record-keeping, a National Weather Service official told the forum.

The storm knocked out power to the airport several times during the day. Luggage belts quit working. Tugs that move planes out of the way couldn’t get traction on the ice. Planes had trouble refueling and de-icing because of the power outages, preventing departures. Seven of the diverted planes were international flights, but there weren’t enough Customs officials working to handle a large number of unexpected passengers who had to wait for more officials to arrive.

If a plane can’t get de-iced, “you might as well just weld the aircraft to the ramp — it’s not going anywhere,” Babbitt said. And if planes can’t depart, there’s no room to unload planes that have landed.

Among FAA’s proposals to airlines and airports for better information-sharing:

– Creating a webpage monitored by FAA where airports can continuously update. Airline dispatchers could check the site before deciding where they want to send flights unable to land at their intended destination. Airlines, rather than controllers, decide which airports they want to send diverted flights to based on factors such as personnel and equipment at the airport. For example, if a plane spends too much time on the ground, the flight crew may exceed the maximum number of hours they’re allowed to work in a single day under FAA safety regulations. In those cases, airlines have to find another flight crew and get them to the plane before the flight can depart.

– Expand FAA-hosted teleconferences with airlines to include airports. FAA and airline officials exchange information in teleconferences each day about weather-related and other difficulties affecting the flow of air traffic around the country, but airport officials generally don’t join those conversations.

– Create a better system for air traffic controllers to identify diverted flights. While special handling would not be provided based sole on diversion status, it would heighten situational awareness about the potential for congestion on the ground at airport and for planes in the air to run low on fuel. FAA’s review of problems that occurred on Oct. 29 showed it wasn’t necessarily obvious to controllers that an unusually large number of flights were being diverted to Bradley, agency officials said.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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