Why American Eagle Had Fourteen Long Tarmac Delays in One Day

Since the 3 hour tarmac delay rule went into effect last year, tarmac delays have, as expected, basically disappeared. (That was only possible due to more cancellations, but I digress.) May was a little different. The most recent DOT Air Travel Consumer Report for May travel is out, and this time, there were sixteen long delays. Fourteen of those belonged to American Eagle on May 29, when awful weather rolled over Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Here’s what happened.

American Eagle in Traffic

American was surprisingly talkative on this issue, and I received a detailed explanation from spokesperson Tim Smith at the airline. The problem, of course, was weather. The morning started off with calm winds but fog and low clouds lasted until almost 10a. Visibility was down to 0.2 miles, and that was the first problem. It started to lift, but then the thunderstorms hit. They lasted on and off through the mid-afternoon.

When lightning gets near an airport, they close down the ramp and make everyone go into a safe location. It’s never a good idea to have people out on the ramp, risking a lightning strike. You also never want to be doing something like fueling an airplane when lightning is around, so delays mount quickly. That happened three separate times on May 29, and each stoppage lasted for about 40 minutes. That put operations at the airport in complete disarray.

As you would expect, the airlines started canceling a number of flights to try to prevent total gridlock. American Eagle alone canceled 126 flights through early afternoon with the forecast showing that weather would improve by around 1p. It didn’t. This is when it got ugly.

As the weather cleared around 3p, more flights started coming in to Chicago, but American Eagle had no gates available because it couldn’t get airplanes to depart fast enough. With its crews scattered around in the wrong places and other departing flights delayed longer than expected, the flights that came in had no place to park. That meant that 14 flights sat on the tarmac for more than 3 hours. (American actually says 15 flights, but the DOT only shows 14.) The longest was for 3 hour and 45 minutes, but the average for those flights was 3 hours and 18 minutes.

The good news is that Eagle was prepared with snacks, water, and working lavs on all the airplanes. That’s the part of the tarmac delay rule that makes a lot of sense to me, and I’m glad it’s there. But you still had a lot of people onboard for a long time. What else could have been done?

Well, American Eagle could have canceled more flights before they came into Chicago. Had the forecast been more accurate, maybe that would have been the case, but weather is unpredictable. Then again, if those inbound flights had been canceled, there would have been many more problems. All those people going into Chicago on would have been stuck where they started instead of getting to their destination with a 3 hour ground delay. With Memorial Day being the next day, it’s unlikely they would have been able to find seats on another flight for some time.

Beyond that, those flights had crews on them that needed to operate other flights out of Chicago. So if those canceled, then a slew of flights leaving Chicago would have been canceled as well. It’s likely that with those airplanes having to come right back to Chicago after that, those flights would have been canceled as well. It would have snowballed, and that’s why airlines only cancel flights when they have to in situations like these. American thought it had planned correctly, but it made a mistake.

I know what you’re thinking. Why not just let everyone off the airplane on buses if there are no gates? American had this to say:

Options for deplaning customers on a pad or other remote location at ORD are very limited. The possibility of deplaning customers on the taxiway and busing them back to the terminal was considered, but rejected on the basis of safety concerns. There was a great deal of activity and congestion on the ramp and we did not want to take that risk.

That was probably smart. Maybe instead of a new runway, O’Hare should simply focus on building some new ramp space where airplanes can park and unload people in situations like this.

In the end, with the tarmac delay rule in place, American probably would have just canceled more flights in advance had it had a more accurate weather report. I bet that’s what United did that day. But would that have really been better for everyone on those flights? That’s a whole different question.

[Original photos via Flickr users ColumbusCameraOp and SmokingPermitted – “Cosa sono? La bambina dei no”/CC 2.0]


50 Responses to Why American Eagle Had Fourteen Long Tarmac Delays in One Day

  1. Dan says:

    I worked for a short time at the Terminal 2 F gates at ORD. I think we had 14 parking spaces to support our entire flight schedule (for those unfamiliar, this is the UAX terminal). I remember working some grid locked days like this, and it just sucks. You can’t get flights off the gate because they are waiting for inbound crews, and you can’t get flights onto the gate because they are waiting for available space. I can just imagine the log jam of deplaning passengers in the alley-way between T3G and T2F.

    In an alternate universe, this is a well-studied paradigm in the computer science world. You do have to break the grid-lock. In this world, with the people running the airport operations and the people running dispatch and scheduling in different departments, getting on the same page is tough.

  2. Mike says:

    Another thing to keep in mind, as someone who flies American Eagle a lot, these are small regional jets. Its one thing to be stuck on a larger plane 18″ seats & video screens in the headrests ect, I would think quite another to be stuck for the hours on a plane where the walls curve into your seat and you can’t physically stand up straight in the aisle if you’re over 5’10”. I hate riding in these for the 45 min flights I normally have in them, can’t imagine 3+ hrs of delays .

  3. Derek says:

    While the long Tarmac delays are not great, one has to question why AA didn’t have the same problems at Chicago (Or any other airline for that matter) AA pushed all of the problems to Eagle it seems (smaller planes, less passengers stuck I guess.) And if you delve further into the data, you see that Eagle had the highest cancellation rate of any airline in the country as well (along with mis-handled bags, etc.) Eagle is at the bottom of every list in the recent report. Thoughts on why that could be?

    • Fred says:

      Well Eagle would get more affected than mainline AA partly because they are given less to work with – there are fewer staff overall (gate agents, ground crew), faster turnaround times are expected, fewer gates or parking spaces are available, and pilots are probably on tighter schedules as well, operating several flights in a row instead of just 1 or 2 for mainline.

    • CF says:

      American is ultimately making the decisions on which flights get canceled, and more often than not, Eagle will get the brunt of the impact because fewer people will suffer. This isn’t unique to American – the others do the same thing. So Eagle isn’t making these decisions – it’s American that’s really pushing it down as it looks at the best way to run its operation with reduced capacity at the airport.

  4. I think its a bunch of bull that you can’t let people off an airplane when things like this happen. People used to walk to/from the plane and still do in places so it’s not like it’s never been done before. Since this is eagle one plane at a time can be towed near a gate to let people off and they enter the terminal via a lower entry or climb the steps to a jet way to enter the terminal.

    • @David, I mostly agree. My beloved San Jose airport recently did a remodel that increases the time to board now that they have jet bridges. I understand why it might be slightly more convenient for passengers needing assistance but why make boarding take longer?

      However, if it were slick on the tarmac, I could see the hesitance. Imagine the chaos if there was a lightning strike nearby and they had to quickly clear everyone.

      The fact that it was American Eagle and not AA comes down to simple math. In a IROP situation, regional carriers are the first to get canceled. Their flights affect less people and for the most part don’t share flight crews. It’s not a matter of pushing the problems to American Eagle. It’s purely a matter of crew avail/flight size and future impact.

    • Sadly our highly litigious culture doesn’t help. If someone slipped and badly hurt themselves deplaning at an unusual location such as a Taxiway, we’d be reading a news article on a possibly frivolous lawsuit..

    • CF says:

      People used to walk to and from the airplane (and still do in some airports), but those were from specific pads used for passenger enplaning and deplaning. In a busy airport environment like O’Hare, these pads don’t exist and there are a ton of ground equipment vehicles, narrow clearances, and dangerous obstacles in the way. It’s a very different situation, and the issue isn’t simply letting people off the airplane.

      • Jim M says:

        European airports (see Ryan Air, KLM CityHopper @ Amsterdam) almost exclusively have busses vs. jetways. You should see what happens when the bus doors open for a Ryan Air flight. Mad chaos as people litterally run up the stairs onto the jet.

        So if it works in Europe. . . . .hmmmm. Cranky is right though, you need a large concrete apron to pull this trick off.

        • You picked one of the worse examples to make your point. RYAN AIR is one step above a flying cattle truck. They could care less about customer care, comfort or opinion. If they could, they would use cattle prods to control movement of passengers from the bus to the aircraft and visa versa. Their motto should be ” You get what you don’t pay for….”

          I think if the legacy airlines did what RYAN does [regularly] there would probably be a customer revolt and government investagation. I wonder if RYAN is still considering charging passengers for using the toilets on their flights…….

          • Jim M says:

            Well with Ryan Air you get what you pay for, and when you fly it you know it real quick. Cheap skates like me find it acceptable for the price. From a pure economic model it works well, and if you don’t like flying from Rome to Paris for 30 Euros there is always a 12 hour train ride.

            My point was: Maybe the design of airports with the concept of a less flexible jetway situation is part of the problem in this case. Not so much about Ryan Air and their business but their operation doesn’t need jetways. In fact they’ve probably figured out it slows them down. Maybe if American Eagle had a better airport design they would not have this problem.

          • Matt says:

            It’s not just the discount airlines that do this. I’ve been on British Airways, KLM and Iberia flights that used buses, all at major airports.

  5. Roger says:

    It is funny that they are unable to bus people between terminal and planes. This is how all airports used to operate. Heck even at LHR I’ve been bussed to a plane (over a decade ago on a Virgin Atlantic 747!) and it is standard practise at many 3rd world airports.

    I’m delighted that the delay rule exists (not everyone thinks it is stupid).

  6. CP says:

    So, does this mean AA is going to be paying the hefty fines spelled out in the rule? Or, does the fact that they provided snacks, etc. mean they are exempt?

    • CJ says:

      That in itself wouldn’t exempt them from the fines. If and only if they can successfully make the argument that ramp closures for safety reasons or other safety-related considerations were responsible for the ramp delay extending past the three-hour mark, they will be exempt from the fines.

      • Brett, as you say in your blog, weather is unpredictable. Soo, given your excellent detailed explanation, I think AA did everything they could – under the circumstances. My take is they did what they could to make the trapped passengers comfortable since they could not de-plane. I do not think it would be fair to penalize AA in this situation. BUT, I think some compensation to the passengers is in order. I hope the passengers were given some attention and comfort by AA once they got back to the gate. You do not say anything about this.

        I know from past experience with DELTA, you would not even get a “I’m sorry”, let alone any attention to passenger comfort or compensation from them. This type of situation is what keeps me away from the DELTA/Atlanta part of any trip. Good luck on the wedding flight!

        • Mike, why should the airline provide compensation?

          If there is snow that shuts down the interstate, do you go to the department of transportation and ask for compensation?

          I could of course be one of those ways an airline could build good will, but a courtesy credit of perhaps $50 on the next flight is all thats in order..

          • Nicholas, I think a courtesy gesture such as you mention is a good idea and would be good PR. Regarding your example of an interstate being shut down, at least you could either delay your trip or if you were enroute, head for the nearest tavern or motel (or some poor unsuspecting friend or relative).

          • I think that courtesy credit builds up a bad expectation that when the slightest thing goes wrong, the customer will get paid. It was pretty bad sometimes dealing with the requests for partial and total refunds because of a whether delay. Imagine the bedlam if they expected it as a standard.

            If the delay/cancellation is caused by WX, there should be no compensation other than a refund if the flight is cancelled and they no longer want to fly.

          • James, I kinda agree with you, but customers are fickle. I think giving some type of credit on a future flight along with appropriate messaging (e.g. “sometimes it rains, sometimes it pours, we can’t control the weather, but give us another try and perhaps next time will be better…”) is the best way around it.

    • CF says:

      The DOT has yet to fine anyone for a long tarmac delay, and that’s part of the problem. Since they haven’t fined anyone, nobody knows if it’s going to be the worst when it happens or not much at all. The DOT has given no guidance, and guidance alone would go a long way to convincing airlines to not cancel as much.

      Now, safety is a permissible reason for keeping people onboard over 3 hours, but it’s unclear how the DOT defines that and what it will do in each specific case.

      • mattheww50 says:

        I have serious doubts about how large the fines can be. If you read the relevant regluations, it doesn’t say per passenger, it says per flight operation and always has.

        I have never understood where the per passenger claims come from, except perhaps those reporting have never bothered to read the relevant portions of the regulations.

        • Mathew, your comment is very interesting, because I always thought that each passenger was to be compensated. I may be wrong. Perhaps CF can clarify or shed some light on this Federal law/regulation. It would be worth while to get the true definition of this.

          • Fred says:

            I think the passengers get nothing in the event that the DOT actually fines the airline. It really is meant more as a punishment to the airline rather than any sort of compensation.

          • CF says:

            The DOT seems to think otherwise. Maybe that can be challenged in court, but I have seen nothing to say that it’s per airplane.

          • mattheww50 says:

            The DOT regulations cite 49 U.S.C. 41712, in concert with 49 U.S.C. 40101(a)(4), 40101(a)(9) and 41702. see http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/rules/Final%20Rule%20on%20Enhancing%20Airline%20Passenger%20Protections.pdf

            The penalty for violating 49 USC 41712 is called off in 49 U.S.C 46301
            and states quite clearly in 49 USC 46301 part D, paragraph 2
            “(2) A separate violation occurs under this subsection for each
            day the violation (other than a violation of section 41719)
            continues or, if applicable, for each flight involving the
            violation (other than a violation of section 41719).

            So there is no basis in the DOT regulations for the fine being per passenger. It clearly states per day or per flight.

            I’ve quoted the source, and provided the references to the specific DOT regulations..

  7. You know, I’m waiting until there is a nice test case for this problem that looks like this:
    A plane lands, after a long flight so it doesn’t have enough fuel onboard to safely take off to another destination. It then taxis to the gate which takes about twenty minutes. But during the time the airplane is taxing there is a thunderstorm that closes the ramp. That thunderstorm lasts two hours and 35 minutes. The ramp crew isn’t able to get the jetbridge upto the jet in those five minutes, so the plane goes three hours on the ground.

    If an airline gets fined, they’ve got a nice lawsuit on catch-22 grounds. They can’t fly the plane safely out of the airport, OSHA regulations prevent them taking the efforts to deplane the aircraft, but the FAA says they should be fined because the plane was on the ground for more than 3 hours without the crew deplaning..

  8. James Williams, I think this was more than a “slightest thing” which occurred. However, this is my personal opinion to AA to at least give nodding acknowlegdement to the passengers that AA feels for them and hopes to see their faces again.

    A PR act like this could make many life-long AA fliers. Many travlers, such as yourself, have become complacent with bad service, delays and overall treatment like cattle. Low expectations = cattle drive traveling.

    • Mike,

      I haven’t become complacent. I actually get treated fairly well as an elite and get compensated for things non-elite won’t. The difference I have with most other customers is that I have insight to the other side:

      (Guest post I did for Cranky Flier)
      http://crankyflier.com/2010/09/07/tales-from-an-airline-reservations-agent-guest-post/

      • James, I am also an elite flyer. What make me and perhaps others loyal customers to a certain airline is the way bad experiences are handled, the level of service/customer care and other different things which vary from person to person. With “insight from the other side” you cannot but have noticed the steady slide in the care and level of service – by ALL airlines – to their customers. Not to mention the hated creeping fee policies of late. As a Consumer I expect a minimum level of sensitivity to customer needs and consideration. Everyone should.

        Consumers should NEVER give up reminding airlines that common courtesy, fairness and responsible policies are basic requirements for ANY business. It seems that airline management has forgotten this more ofter than not. Abuse of a “captive audience” should be promptly reported and acted upon by the government authorities. We have all witnessed that the self-policing by the airlines themselves was a foreseeable joke.

        • I don’t think not compensating for an act of nature or trying to manage laws that as Cranky has noted were an overreaction is abusing people who are possibly hub-captive.

          I only worked for the airline for 1.5 yrs and noticed the decline. Friends who stayed after my departure noted more and more dependence on the bottom line than keeping people happy. For instance, it wasn’t uncommon for people to complain that agents were only able to look up 3 itin’s before telling them to call back.

          At DL specifically, adding back Red Coats AFAICT has helped but that doesn’t change that in many cases front-line employees are not properly empowered. There were several occasions where I KNEW a flight was going to cancel and couldn’t have rebooked the passenger if I went by the book(having to wait until it officially canceled and waiting available seats on other flights dwindle).

          What I really wish but know would never happen is that if we got TGV trains to give air travel a run for its money. The problem is size. Need to get from France to the UK? I can take a ferry, a train, or fly. Need to get from the midwest to either coast, flying is pretty much my only option.

          But wx is wx is wx. Giving people a consolation prize all the time is not the answer. It’s a bad precedent. You would have folks gaming wx delays like folks game United VDBs.

          • Thanks for your interestiing reply James. I agree that no one can do much about the weather issues. However, when, for whatever reason, passengers are kept captive on an aircraft for – as the law defines – over three hours it would not be out of hand for an airline to CONSIDER offering a positive gesture. It could only sweeten the bad taste in someones mouth after such an event. This is my honest opinion and hope.

            I wish that the corporate bosses in the airline world would have the sensitivity you reflect in your input. It would be merciful to the suffering traveler in a challenging situation. Since we know it won’t happen, the only weapon a Consumer has is by complaining, switching carriers or throwing yourself at the mercy of a Customer Service Rep.

  9. Reuters reported ORD was closed this morning for almost and hour due to thunderstorms. An AA spokesman Ed Martelle said AA had 10 cancels and 8 diversions and that eagle has 39 flights cancel. But added since they have 312 departures from ORD “…. so 39 isn’t really much of an impact”.

    Sounds like he’s trying to play it off as no big deal.

  10. Christian says:

    Brett,

    being stuck on a plane, not being able to de-plane, is basically un-heard off at European airports. FRA, AMS, CDG (don’t know for sure about LHR) all have huge areas to park aircraft. They also have fleets of busses and stairs to deplane people at these parking spots. Heck, LH frequently boards 346s at off-terminal parking spots at FRA with busses (they probably do it faster this way than possible with a single jet bridge).

    There is no whatsoever reason this can’t be done in the US…wait — it would cost money to be prepared for bad weather! Damn, didn’t think about that…

    • Fred says:

      A lot of large airports in the US don’t have large areas, ORD included. This simply means that there is not enough physical space to park and deplane. The obvious solution to this would be to expand airports, but as soon as you get into eminent domain (which is pretty much necessary for most airports) people will bitch and moan to no end and nothing will get done.

      • Christian says:

        Well, just look at ORD:

        http://maps.google.com/maps?q=chicago&hl=en&ll=41.974583,-87.90689&spn=0.017931,0.041542&sll=41.6025,-98.93&sspn=0.03607,0.083084&t=h&z=15

        Lots of room to expand parking space within the airport premises. One could even build a tunnel for busses under one of the runways to access the huge area southwest of the terminals. It’s just a question of money — it’s more economical to let people suffer for hours on planes a couple times a year than to invest in infrastructure. After all, the passengers don’t have any right to demand compensation (!) and paying DOT fines is still cheaper than building infrastructure.

        • Much of that area you talk about is slated to be used for new runways (Brett made a reference to that in this post). In fact you could see the early stages of construction on what will become Runway 10C/28C on the southeast end of the airport. There’s a lot of green space on west side of the field but the ORD master plan calls for a new terminal in that space (right now it’s kind of a long shot to get built but still). The “scenic hold pad” between 9L/27R and 9R/27L and the former ILANG ramp on the east side have potential but that will be limited once another east-west runway (9C-27C) is built adjacent to those spaces. So no, not really a lot of room for parking when you look at the future plan for the airport.

  11. Leslie says:

    American should just shift some of it’s flights back to St. Louis where a second runway was built to handle the extra capacity that O’Hare doesn’t have. Seems like a waste of passenger money to build more capacity when it is available in the same general area of the country.

    • Leslie, this is a GREAT idea! One of the most constructive I have seen during all the above exchanges. I agree, AA should wake up and utilize this unused treasure. It would be a win-win for most travelers. Cheaper too for AA and traveler fares. I believe the weather impacts would be much less as well. AA could pull a rabbit out of a hat if they were to jump on this!

      CF, What is you thinking on this?

      • CF says:

        Airlines don’t choose hub locations because they have a lot of runways. Airlines choose hubs because they have a good mix of strong local traffic and connecting traffic. O’Hare beats St Louis on those metrics by a mile, and you will not see St Louis come back as a hub any time soon.

        • Fred says:

          What about MSP then? (I know that DL inherited it from NW, but it still exists and is doing well) Minneapolis is about the same size as St. Louis, and also has a huge airport with plenty of land area.
          It also is one of my favourite airports to connect in, as delays seem relatively rare compared to larger hubs (ORD, ATL) at least.

          • CF says:

            I know this has come up on previous posts, but a lot of it is situational by airline. So if you have no hub in Chicago, then St Louis might seem more attractive. Does Delta keep a hub in MSP if it has one in Chicago? Maybe not. But MSP is also a great gateway to much of the upper mountain west. It is a more attractive place to be from that standpoint.

      • BW says:

        The reason AA pulled out of STL was because it wasn’t profitable. You need local traffic to make a hub work.

  12. Bill says:

    send them to St. Louis. we’ll take care of them.

  13. Retired AAer says:

    Ah, people – weather in Chicago is the biggest problem of operating a HUB in this city. Well, other than Rich Daley! Thank goodness he’s “out-a-here”.
    Midwest weather is totally unpredictable. A front comes from the Rockies and gaines moister over Iowa, while cool winds press down from Canada – uh, guess what? Stormy weather for the upper midwest.
    SO, be real, and DEAL WITH IT. Weather happens and that’s not something the airlines like, or U, or the transportation system of any country. It happens…OK?

    At the ORD Ticket Counter one day in the ’70’s a guy ran up and asked why his flight was delayed? I said, “Sir, we have very heavy fog right now and the dispatchers are checking to see when we can start departures”. His response was, “well, I know it’s foggy, it took me almost 2 hrs. to get here”.
    DUH !
    Grow up travelers – things & weather happens.
    Then again – how about; “Sorry folks the weather is really BAD, but we’re gonna TRY and get this ‘bird-in-the-air’ – OK?
    Or, “Sorry folks, no mechanic is on duty now, so we’ll have to fly this “one” to Pittsburgh; we think there is an on-duty mechanic,still there.

    Go ahead – make a choice………..

    • Well put. This is why I try to [absolutely] try and avoid hubs like O’Hare and Atlanta and SFO. Only as a last resort will I connect or fly into hubs like that. This is why – in my opinion – it is a shame that AA won’t utilize St Louis more. Yes, as CF points out, there are many more connections through Chicago. However, with planning, the airlines givith and takith. The Feds and local government have put in a lot of $$$ to make ST Louis a top notch airport. Surely AA (and other airlines) can figure out a good (and profitable) way to fit this place into their master plan. I caqn’t recall very many times I encountered flight difficulties there with TWA. I made countless connections there. Located the perfect distance from LAX for a leg stretch. My thoughts…..

  14. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater says:

    Send them to Detroit! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVDDYQlmq0w

    In regards to the issue of hard stands for enplaning/deplaning of passengers, unlike airports in Europe, most US airports aren’t designed for the bus to plane operation. Everything is based around the physical terminal structure, as you know, with pax enplaning and deplaning at the terminal building. It works fairly well during good weather conditions, but it gets really complicated with IROPS. Setting up hardstand spaces for aircraft loading and unloading isn’t a bad idea but it’s not high on the to-do list of most airports. The priority at most major airports with regard to capital projects is increasing efficiencies with regard to runway and taxiway layouts, improving/building facilities, and improving ground access to the airport.

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