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 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.