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Fliers beware: 2007 set to be worst year for delays, report says

  • Story Highlights
  • Department of Transportation: Frequent, long flight delays are increasing
  • Inspector general report: Airlines don't have enough plans to deal with problem
  • Passengers stranded on JetBlue flight this year for more than 10 hours
  • Outgoing FAA chief has warned that feds will solve problem if airlines don't
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Ashley Broughton
CNN
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Frequent and lengthy flight delays are increasing and worsening, putting 2007 on track to break records set in 2000, according to a Department of Transportation inspector general report.

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2007 is on track to break flight delay records set in 2000, according to recent report.

Yet airlines' plans to address delays are limited, so a national task force should reconvene to develop and coordinate contingency plans with local airports and the Federal Aviation Administration, the report says.

In 2001, airlines agreed to establish the task force made up of representatives from airlines, airports and the FAA, the report said. But the 9/11 attacks caused the task force to turn most of its attention to security issues.

The report urged the DOT to "take a more active role in overseeing customer-service issues to ensure that airlines comply with their policies governing long, on-board delays."

An activist for passengers' rights, however, complains the report does not go far enough.

Kate Hanni, who formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights after being stuck on an American Airlines plane last year, said the report cited a 63 percent increase in delays of five or more hours between 2006 and 2007. Video Watch an airline passenger uprising »

"It's absurd," the Napa, California, woman said.

Hanni and Calvin Scovel, the DOT inspector general, will testify Wednesday before the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

The report examined two instances of lengthy, on-board delays -- one on December 29, 2006, involving American Airlines flights and another on February 14, 2007, involving JetBlue flights.

In the first incident, severe weather in the Dallas-Fort Worth area caused its airport to be shut several times over an eight-hour period.

American diverted more than 100 flights, including the one in which Hanni was a passenger, "and many passengers on those flights were stranded on board aircraft on the tarmac for as long as nine hours," according to the report.

The number of diversions was second only to the number diverted on 9/11, when the nation's airspace was closed to commercial traffic, it said.

In the second incident, hundreds of passengers were stranded aboard a JetBlue aircraft at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport for as long as 10½ hours as snow and ice blanketed the Northeast, the report said.

"At one point during that day, JetBlue had 52 aircraft on the ground with only 21 available gates."

Some observers predicted that the incidents might lead to regulation of airlines. But the report does not recommend regulations. Instead, it encourages airlines to develop -- and follow -- their own plans for handling such instances.

Hanni called the report a "half-measure" and said Scovel "should be suggesting legislation."

She testified before Congress in April alongside Scovel and recalled him saying it may be time for legislative action.

The report, Hanni added, said American Airlines has implemented a policy to prevent on-board delays from exceeding four hours.

Hanni said that "policy" is actually an internal guideline. The terminology, she said, keeps shifting. "There's all these loopholes," she said.

Her group has lobbied Congress to pass laws to protect passengers inconvenienced by long delays and cancellations. The details of such legislation are being drafted in the House and Senate, she said.

The inspector general report calls flight delays a major customer-service issue for airlines, but not a new one. Congress considered enacting a passengers' bill of rights after incidents in January 1999 in which passengers remained aboard planes for more than eight hours on snowbound Detroit runways.

But, "based on the first seven months of the year, it is clear that 2007 may be the busiest travel period since the peak of 2000 and may surpass the 2000 record levels for flight delays, cancellations and diversions," the report said.

Data through July show that nearly 28 percent of commercial passenger flights were delayed, canceled or diverted, compared with 24 percent during the same period in 2006. And the delays were longer -- nearly 57 minutes on average, up nearly three minutes from 2006.

In the American Airlines and JetBlue incidents, "while weather was the primary contributor ... it was not the only factor in passengers being stranded on board aircraft for long periods of time," the report said.

"We found that neither airline had a system-wide policy or procedure in place to mitigate long, on-board delays and off-load passengers within a certain period of time."

American did not control the number of flights diverted to other airports, in turn overwhelming its operations in Austin, Texas, where some of the longest on-board delays took place, the report said.

JetBlue, meanwhile, stuck to its policy of not canceling flights and, "as a result, its personnel at JFK airport became overwhelmed with the sheer number of arriving and departing aircraft on the ground at the same time, with no gates available for deplaning passengers on arriving flights."

Of 13 airports examined, including 12 major hubs, only two had instituted a process by which airlines are contacted and asked for a plan after a plane and its passengers have sat for two hours on the tarmac.

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In general, airport managers believe they do not have the authority to interfere with an airline's operations during such delays, the report said.

Earlier this month, the outgoing head of the FAA told a group of aviation executives that if airlines don't improve record flight delays, the federal government will impose its own solutions. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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