Airports Devise Strategies to Cope With Three-Hour Tarmac Rule

Author: 
Greg Gerber
Published in: 
July-August
2010




Passenger advocates pumped their fists in victory while airline officials wrung their hands with worry when the Department of Transportation (DOT) took aim at tarmac delays of more than three hours last December. Now that both groups have lived with the new "tarmac rule" since April 29, some are moderating their position while others have redoubled their stance.

As DOT focuses on the total number of delays that stretch beyond three hours - 903 in 2009 - the Air Transport Association points out that they occur on only 0.014% of flights, or 1 in 7,143.




Meanwhile, airports across the country are finding ways to help airlines avoid hefty fines associated with the new rule (up to $27,500 per passenger, per delay). "The tarmac rule was designed to affect the way airlines do business," notes Brad Penrod, executive director of Pittsburgh International Airport. "But from an industry perspective, it becomes an airport issue."

The rule's ancillary effects trouble Bob Herbst, founder of AirlineFinancials.com, a website that provides financial and operational data about the airline industry.

"This problem would be a lot better if politicians would stay out of the airline business," contends Herbst, who also provides consulting services to airline management and labor groups. "The unintended consequences the rule created are causing bigger problems than anyone imagined."

Quicker to Cancel?

In the past, Herbst says, airlines would do everything they could to eventually operate delayed flights, even if it caused additional delays throughout the day. Delivering passengers late was better than canceling - a philosophy that also applied to aircraft and crewmembers needed for subsequent flights.




Now, he explains, airlines will preemptively cancel flights to avoid stiff fines. A 737 stranded with a full load, for instance, could cost an airline almost $3.5 million. Increased cancellations and other unintended effects, Herbst warns, will be felt throughout the industry all summer long.

Thanks to pent up demand for leisure travel and increased spending on business travel, airlines are already facing the heaviest load factors in their history, he explains. Most planes leaving the gates lately have less than a handful of open seats. The average load factor in May, he notes, was 85%.

"Canceling just one flight and trying to rebook 150 people onto other flights may take days to complete," Herbst warns. "Canceling several dozen flights could have serious consequences."

That could leave some travelers cursing the new rule. "Passengers will be stranded and on their own because airlines are not required to pay for accommodations and food for weather-related cancellations," he explains.

The ripple effect multiplies his concerns. A flight canceled by thunderstorms in Minneapolis, for instance, means an aircraft won't arrive as scheduled in Miami. Passengers in Miami waiting to go on to Denver won't have a plane to board, which means the flight in Denver will need to be canceled as well.

"Airlines have done everything they could possibly do to become more efficient and keep costs low. There are not a lot of spare aircraft," says Herbst. "The reality of the tarmac rule is that one single cancellation will have a domino effect that will last for a day or two. I predict it will get really ugly really fast when multiple airports are impacted by the same storm system."

David Stempler, president of the passenger advocacy group Air Travelers Association, also foresees increased cancellations; but he's more concerned about other possible implications. "Placing time deadlines on safety-related activities should never occur," stresses Stempler.

So far, DOT statistics belie worries about rampant preemptive cancellations. Of 529,330 total flights in April, 3,637 were canceled - about half the rate in March or in April 2009. Flight-friendly weather during much of April, however, could have been a main factor. Improved on-time rates in the New York airspace have also been cited as a possible cause for the lack of scratched flights.

Operational Concerns

When flights are canceled or passengers elect to disembark a delayed flight, airports can be left scrambling to accommodate the airline's change in plans. If, for instance, an aircraft leaves the gate and can't return because another aircraft has taken its space, passengers may need to deplane on the tarmac itself, which introduces additional safety and security considerations.

"Not every airport can bring a bus out onto the taxiway in order to return passengers to the gate," notes Herbst.

The issue is further complicated if an aircraft's engines are running. In such cases, only specially trained staff can operate a vehicle around the aircraft. That often limits the number of workers available to maneuver a vehicle into place, which could cause further delays.

The time airports have to make arrangements for such cases will often be less than the three hours referred to in the 81-page rule that addresses tarmac delays and other passenger service issues. "The three-hour rule will, in reality, become a two-hour rule because airlines will need to make multiple operational changes to accommodate canceled flights," Herbst explains. "Airlines are not going to want to pay flight crews to sit for two hours on a tarmac, and thus risk (them) becoming illegal under crew rest rules should the flight eventually be able to continue. At the two-hour point, the pilot will make a public address announcement alerting passengers they may be delayed three hours and must allow anyone who wants to leave the opportunity to do so."

The catch, he adds, is that once passengers are offered the opportunity to get off the aircraft, the clock restarts if nobody takes the airline up on the option. "If just one person decides he doesn't want to wait another two or three hours, the plane must return to the gate," says Herbst.

The ADA Element

Many airports are unprepared to unload handicapped passengers on the tarmac, says Bill Keith, president of ground support equipment company Keith Consolidated.

"The rule says that airlines have three hours to get everyone off the aircraft, and that includes wheelchair-bound passengers who can't walk down portable steps," Keith explains. "Handicapped passengers create a whole new challenge in managing a tarmac delay, and nobody has totally figured that out yet."

Lack of preparedness creates exposure to potential litigation from inconvenienced passengers protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). "They are certainly not a group of people you are going to want to delay," cautions Keith.

Practically speaking, catering trucks could be used to bring handicapped passengers to ground level, he offers. But the associated customer service shortcomings could yield a public relations nightmare.

According to Keith, some airlines are ordering special lift trucks to help unload wheelchairs; others are opting for ramps that allow wheelchairs and walking passengers to crisscross their way down to ground level.

"While some airlines are being very proactive in how they plan for this contingency, sadly, I don't think many airlines and airports have given a lot of thought to how they will accommodate handicapped passengers onboard a delayed flight that can't return to the gate," observes Keith.

In April, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) accepted delivery of a COBUS 3000 vehicle that's able to transport 100+ passengers plus their carry-on luggage. The vehicle's capacity means fewer buses are required to accommodate heavily packed flights. Multiple doors on each side and a full low floor interior with no steps to negotiate facilitate loading and unloading.

"If passengers are involved in a lengthy tarmac delay, they are already in a stressful situation," notes COBUS sales manager Don Frassetto. "The last thing they want to happen is to be transported in old transit buses or vans from the landside that are ill-equipped for that function. By using purpose-built equipment, such as the COBUS, passengers are not only being dealt with in a professional and safe manner, but also in a way that is cost-effective for the airline and airport."

DFW also recently purchased a set of covered airstairs by ACCESSAIR Systems.

"Regardless of the weather, passengers will never have to be exposed to the elements as they will go from the interior of the aircraft, down the covered stairs and directly into the COBUS which then takes them directly to the terminal," chronicles Frassetto. "It's a safe, secure and passenger-friendly solution for complying with the tarmac rule."

Airside Considerations

Aircraft can also encounter delays while taxiing to the runway. Some airports don't have a parallel taxiway to allow aircraft to return to the gate or pull over to disembark passengers without impacting other aircraft. Such airports could conceivably feel pressure to shut down an active runway to allow a delayed or canceled flight to taxi back to the gate, which would cause further delays for other arriving and departing aircraft.

"It's not like a pilot can make a U-turn and go back to the runway," Herbst comments. "They have to continue in line until they intersect with the runway and then taxi back to the terminal."

Allowing delayed aircraft to remain at the gate until they can leave may not be an option - especially at busy airports with a constant stream of arriving aircraft.





Diversionary Tactics

Airlines trying to avoid tarmac rule penalties may divert more incoming aircraft to nearby regional and reliever airports.

Pueblo Memorial Airport in Colorado is already accustomed to such traffic. Located 100 miles south of Denver, it often maintains better visibility and receives less snow from the same storms that hamper traffic at Denver International.

"Diversions are a very important part of our business plan, and our airport is well designed to handle them," explains Mark Lovin, manager of Pueblo Memorial. "Built on an old army base, we have a large ramp area that was used for B-24 and B-17 training in World War II. That gives us room to store many aircraft for long periods of time."

With three daily flights to Denver and commercial charter service to accommodate, the airport has a pre-established plan for handling unexpected aircraft. The airport restaurant routinely opens outside of its normal 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. schedule to serve diverted passengers. And during extremely busy periods, airport staff has had dozens of pizzas delivered. The airport recently installed additional vending machines to provide snack foods and beverages.

Transportation Security Administration officers also lend a hand by providing screening services at odd hours so passengers can leave the relatively small waiting area near the gate.

Because it does not have a jetway, the airport purchased a boarding ramp that allows the ground crew to offload passengers from aircraft as large as a CRJ 700 or Airbus 320. The ramp, says Lovin, requires just a few people to set up and operate, and it stores easily when not in use.

The airport's fixed-base operator has a set of airstairs that accommodates larger wheelchairs.

Diversions are so plentiful at Pueblo Memorial, the airport is expanding its terminal to handle an additional 150 screened passengers.

"We do our best to accommodate any aircraft," Lovin explains. "Our staff knows how important it is for the airlines to accommodate their passengers quickly, so our crew wants to help them. We offer low landing fees, terminal fees and fuel fees. We're a very cost-competitive alternative to Denver-bound aircraft caught up in any unexpected situation."

The key, he stresses, is to develop strategies and practice managing various scenarios so the airport and crew are ready to jump into action when necessary. Lovin also draws on his personal experience as a pilot and 25 years working at large hub airports.

"We are constantly asking what the airport, TSA and the airlines would want us to do to make their situation better in the event of a diversion," he relates. "It takes a lot of effort to stay on top of things, but our airline partners appreciate that we take those steps."





Planning in Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh International Airport is another popular destination for diverted traffic.

"Because of frequent East Coast congestion, we are long accustomed to serving aircraft not destined for Pittsburgh," explains executive director Brad Penrod. "Dealing with a sudden influx of passengers, as well as the need for TSA rescreening, and working to mitigate customer service problems sounds like what we do every day."

During 28 years on the job, Penrod has processed volumes of passengers off aircraft under special circumstances. His record is 32 aircraft at the same time.

Diversions are so commonplace, the airport maintains a few unassigned gates and extra taxiway space to accommodate them.

"As airport staff, we must reach out to the carriers to offer whatever support services they need to accommodate passengers in a timely basis," says Penrod.




Pittsburgh International's staff consequently spends time every year planning for various contingencies associated with receiving diversions. The airport's operating plan details notification steps for concessionaires, ground crews, security staff, etc.

Because contingency plans vary from carrier to carrier, Penrod reviews each airline's plan with his operations staff to prepare for various situations.

"We have their plans available for a resource, so we know exactly what they are expecting from us," Penrod explains. "Anything an airline will need from an airport is available with one call. We'll get them a gate and get their passengers in the building and coordinate a concession program to ensure they have access to food and beverages."

If the airport is expecting a big influx of customers, the custodial staff jumps into overdrive to make more space for passengers by clearing the terminal of obstacles and equipment. It also ensures that restrooms are clean and well stocked.

"Sharing information with the airport goes a long way toward coordinating the efforts of airlines, airports and ground handlers," notes Penrod. "Good communication helps avoid surprises - and that goes a long way toward ensuring efficiency in handling the situation."

Airlines, of course, can help their cause by alerting the airport as soon as they divert an aircraft. "Any extra time we receive allows us to turn an unplanned situation into a best-case scenario," says Penrod.





When You've Seen One Airport ...

Although airlines and airports face many of the same challenges, their responses often vary greatly, says Dave Korzep, airport operations superintendent at Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC).

"When you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport," quips Korzep. "While some airports address problems as they arise, others will be far more proactive."

To keep SLC in the proactive camp, Korzep and his staff debrief carriers after every major storm to determine what worked, what didn't and what the airport can do to help ensure smoother operations in the future. Comments from debriefing sessions inspired the airport to purchase two sets of airstairs to help speed the passenger unloading process.




As a regional hub that's prone to weather-related disruptions, SLC gets ample practice to refine its strategies for servicing diverted passengers. With dozens of restaurants, three are open 24 hours a day. In extreme situations, other restaurants remain open extra hours. The airport also stocks cots, blankets, overnight kits and baby care supplies.

According to Korzep, being proactive is the most important part of helping airlines comply with the tarmac rule and other federal mandates. The topic is consequently addressed weekly with tenants, TSA employees and air traffic control officials.

"We run tabletop drills to practice a variety of 'what if' scenarios and try to predict the unpredictable," he explains. "We'll just throw a scenario on the table and see how everyone would react. Through that process, we find holes in our operation that we can address before we really need to."

As a hub for Delta, SLC helps the airline make changes on the ground when cancellations occur. When flights are terminated after passengers have been sitting on the tarmac for extended periods of time, extra agents and a special call center are used to reschedule passengers on the next available flights.

"We have plans in place to deal with any event, whether it is an aircraft at the gate or unloading on the tarmac," says Delta spokesman Anthony Black. "It just requires an understanding of how the process will flow in order to keep everyone from employees to air traffic control to the FAA to passengers in the loop. The three-hour rule is no different than any other aviation rule as it pertains to caring for passengers we're contracted to care for."

Early Results

When DOT released its latest flight delay statistics, even staunch opponents of the tarmac rule acknowledged notable performance changes during the rule's first month. In April, only four aircraft were stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours, compared to 25 in March and down substantially from 81 last April.

According to DOT officials, airlines effectively wiped out tarmac delays of three+ hours before increased fines took effect on April 29. ExpressJet, for instance, was fined $175,000 for stranding boarded passengers overnight last August. These days, penalties for the same incident could approach $1.3 million. The cost, however, was ultimately higher. DOT secretary Ray LaHood cited the ExpressJet incident, which included limited food supplies and a broken lavatory, as a catalyst for the new tarmac rule and its stiffer fines.

Subcategory: 
Operations

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