Just when you thought the new law, with a fine of up to $27,500 per passenger for delays that keep passengers on the tarmac for more than three hours would solve the problem, a JetBlue flight was diverted to BDL during the Halloween snowstorm and unable to deplane its passengers for more than seven hours.
While fines are likely, the issue raises new questions — how should airports handle diverted flights, particularly those that entail different aircraft types or international arrivals, for which the airport is unprepared. If we are going to require that airlines deplane passengers on a timely basis, do we also need regulations that airports will have portable air stairs to facilitate that process, or mandate rotation of aircraft on and off gates during emergency situations to facilitate these regulations being met?
Apparently Hartford was overwhelmed with diverted traffic from the NY airports, causing every gate to be filled, without an adequate area to deplane additional passengers. While we might complain about third-world airports without jetways that require passengers to deplane via air stairs to buses, that technology still works in a pinch, and passengers could be deplaned from anywhere on the tarmac that could accommodate an aircraft.
Emergency situations are difficult for airlines, and often more difficult for airports. If we are expecting airports to handle unusual situations, it would be wise for the industry to help them out with the capabilities to do so. A few extra sets of mobile air stairs, or even truck mounted air stairs, and the buses to carry passengers, would be beneficial assets for unusual situations. Perhaps they should be standard equipment for weather emergencies at all air carrier airports. But who should pay for it?
In this instance, the pilot was concerned that his passengers would riot on board the aircraft, and even asked the tower for police help. Maybe at some point you look at the economic equation of $27,500 per passenger times 100 passengers against the cost of a new emergency exit slide, which I’m certain is not a $2.75 million item. While that’s not the easiest way out of an aircraft, it would meet the regulatory requirement.
Would JetBlue divert to Hartford again, or try for Boston next time it has a problem? What if that’s not the safest or best choice, but a potential of a $2.75 million fine enters the decision process? Should airports be required to stock tow bars for all aircraft so they can rotate them from gates, even if those aircraft don’t regularly show up? Could airlines better cooperate with each other during times of weather stress by allowing their unused gates to be occupied, or clearing a gate for use by another carrier in dire straights when a plane is empty?
While regulations and government mandate are fine, extraordinary circumstances often can overwhelm the best intentions of all involved. If we are going to mandate that airlines deliver their passengers to a terminal, we’d better ensure that the facilities can handle the situation. If that means a few more shovel ready jobs to provide additional tarmac for emergency parking, perhaps that’s a better expenditure than bailing our those who speculate in financial derivatives when Washington attempts an economic stimulus.
Yes, the situation was unfortunate. But in this case, JetBlue had little control over the overwhelmed infrastructure at BDL. The Captain landed to ensure the safety of his passenger, and begged for help to get them deplaned. What else could he have done?
Congress mandating that it be so and reality are often a world apart.