WASHINGTON — Being stuck for hours on a stuffy, stinky plane at the airport was supposed to be a thing of the past, thanks to the government's threat of huge fines against the airlines.
But last weekend's weather that stranded hundreds of travelers, some for as long as seven hours, on an airport tarmac in Connecticut underscored the limitations of federal rules designed to protect passengers from such ordeals.
Under Transportation Department rules that went into effect in April 2010, most tarmac delays at U.S. airports are limited to three hours for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. Airlines that violate the limit risk fines as high as $27,500.
Exceptions to the time limits are allowed only for safety, security or if air traffic control advises the pilot that returning to the terminal would disrupt airport operations.
Industry officials said the tarmac delays appear to prove the point they've been making all along — that they're often powerless to prevent such incidents. But a consumer advocate said that at least one airline — JetBlue Airways — doesn't appear to have made the kind of advance handling arrangements that could have spared its passengers the misery of hours of sitting in cramped airline seats.
A rare October snowstorm and equipment problems at Newark's Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport forced 23 planes to divert to the much smaller Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., on Saturday. Passengers on at least three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines flight from Paris reported being confined for seven hours or more. Food and water ran out, toilets backed up and tempers snapped.
The captain of JetBlue Flight 504, which was diverted en route to Newark from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., begged for help to get his plane to a gate.
"We can't seem to get any help from our own company. I apologize for this, but is there any way you can get a tug and a tow bar out here to us and get us towed somewhere to a gate or something?" the captain can be heard pleading with authorities over his radio on audio provided by LiveATC.net.
"I have a paraplegic onboard that needs to come off," he said later. "I have a diabetic on here that's got an issue. It's a list of things. I just gotta get some help."
The Transportation Department said in a statement that it is investigating whether JetBlue's handling of Flight 504 violated the department's three-hour limit on how long airlines can hold passengers in planes on tarmac or face fines.
The department is also looking into several other possible extended tarmac delays of more than three hours, the statement said.
JetBlue spokeswoman Alison Croyle declined to comment on the pilot's remarks or whether the airline had arrangements in place in case of a diversion to Bradley.
"We are conducting an investigation and we are prepared to support the DOT's investigation," Croyle said.
Steve Lott, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, expressed frustration with three-hour tarmac rule.
"The way the rule was written it was targeted at the airline industry as if airlines were the only parties involved," Lott said. "This should be a shared responsibility between airlines, airports and government agencies like TSA or customs."
Bill McGee, a travel adviser for the Consumers' Union, said that a confluence of events made the situation extraordinary: the snow, the large number of diversions to Bradley, a power outage at the airport during the storm that may have hindered refueling, and not enough customs officials on duty to handle a diverted international flight.
But weather affects all airlines equally, and not all of them had extensive tarmac delays, he noted.
"How well airlines respond to it is a test of how well airlines treat their passengers," said McGee, a former airline dispatcher. "Their responsibility is to be prepared for situations like this and to have handling agreements in place" with ground service companies that work at airports like Bradley supplying equipment like tugs, tow bars and jetways for just such "irregular operations" as last weekend's diversions.
But when international flights are directed not to allow passengers to deplane because there aren't enough customs officials to handle them, as American officials have said was the case, there is little an airline can do, McGee said.
"There are some shades of gray here, no question," he said.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has hailed the tarmac delay rule as a success. During the first year the rule was in effect, delays of three hours and longer fell to 20 from 693. But the Government Accountability Office said in September that the government's effort to eliminate longer delays has made it 24 percent more likely that airlines will cancel flights as they approach the three-hour ceiling.