Pursuing Passengers’ Bill of Rights is a waste of time and money

by David Burns on July 31, 2008

Monday, July 28, was not a fun day to be an airline passenger departing from virtually anywhere in the northeastern U.S. So much so, that some of the long airline delays even made news headlines, as in the case of Delta flight 621 from JFK to Las Vegas.

There is some discrepancy regarding the length of the delay – customers report being onboard for 7 hours and the airline reports the delay as 5 hours – but nevertheless, either way, it’s a very long time.

Kennedy wasn’t the only airport impacted. Just down Interstate 95, in Philadelphia, things were just as bad, although it didn’t seem to garner as much mainstream news coverage as Delta 621. Philadelphia’s situation was covered from a very different angle — the airline employee’s — on the internet message board usaviation.com. As a former airline employee, I much prefer to discusss this angle.

Here, before the discussion digresses (most of these veer off topic eventually), we learn what the media didn’t tell us. Thunderstorms closed just about every flight route in the northeast in a domino effect sort of way. Transatlantic flight routes over New York – which Philadelphia traffic must traverse – were closed due to weather. Just as flights received reroutes from air traffic control, the flight paths to which these departures had been reassigned were subsequently closed. One thunderstorm line moving east to west converged with one moving north to south directly overhead Washington, DC. Essentially, all air traffic between Washington and New York ground to a halt.

The media didn’t cover the situation with that level of detail, did they? Doing so would have taken some wind out of their sails.

Katie Hanni, a consumer activist who formed the Coalition for Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, suggested she “Wishes [Delta had] come forward with something more proactive for passengers.” David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, said “The Delta delay was unacceptable and kind of unconscionable.” In my opinion, both of these organizations are impotent at best, pander to Phil Gramm’s “nation of whiners,” and provide little more than media sound bites.

What exactly did Ms. Hanni and Mr. Stempler, and for that matter Representative Oberstar (D-Minn.) with his proposed boondoggle Air Service Improvement Act of 2008, expect Delta to do? Do they think the crew wanted to be cooped up on the plane any more than the passengers did, or that Delta wanted to pay additional wages to employees sitting on the ground?

I postulate that if Delta had turned tail and gone back to the gate without trying to depart, it would have been criticized for that, too. It was a no-win situation.

It’s reported that it took the Delta flight 90 minutes to return to the gate once the decision was made to cancel the flight. I can’t personally speak to the runway and taxiway configuration at Kennedy, but I can at Philadelphia International, which as I mentioned, was having trouble of its own. Similar conditions apply at Kennedy, LaGuardia, Boston’s Logan International, Midway and other airports hemmed in by either water or urban constraints.

Philadelphia International Airport presents a number of challenges for airlines:

1. Not enough airspace: Philadelphia is sandwiched between New York, Newark, Baltimore and Washington. When its flight routes are closed, traffic must either stop or encroach on another airport’s “highway in the sky.” The same goes for those other cities. Sort of like when a highway has a wreck – Garmin tells motorists to pick an alternate route, which quickly becomes clogged with traffic trying to avoid the first overcrowded road. This one is hard to fix. One cannot exactly produce more airspace without some sort of cosmic “big bang,” but then we’d likely be extinct and all of this would be moot.

2. Not enough land for runways and taxiways: The airfield is crammed between the Delaware River and Interstate 95. The primary runways are too close together to permit simultaneous takeoffs and landings. I’m no pilot, but the perpendicular runway is very short and seems only suited for commuter aircraft, although the last time I was there, I saw a Southwest jet landing on it. It looked like a sumo wrestler jumping onto a bathmat, and I’d be white-knuckling it if I were onboard. One of the runways is configured so that if a ship is in a certain place in the Delaware river, aircraft can’t use it. How dumb is that? It escapes me how a Passengers’ Bill of Rights can cure that situation.

Most taxiways are essentially one-way, one-lane streets. That means, if any of the airplanes ahead of you are waiting for clearance to take off, just about everybody in line has to wait too. And there isn’t any room to turn around and go back to the gate. Airplanes aren’t the size of Smart Cars. They have big wings that bump into one another if they try to pass on those one-lane roads.

3. Poor terminal design: When the first terminal buildings at Philadelphia were built, it seems our forefathers didn’t envision an airport of this scope. They are too close together to enable simultaneous taxi-in and taxi-out of two aircraft. That means if any airplane is moving within the “U” formed by the two buildings, no other can do so. Period. And with the rest of the gridlock (see #2 above), there’d be nowhere to put the aircraft anyway. That means those airplanes that want to come back to the gate can’t get there because the ones that want to leave can’t get out.

If Ms. Hanni, Mr. Stempler and Representative Oberstar really want to squawk about something, they’ll give up the ridiculous notion of a “Passengers’ Bill of Rights” and start focusing their attention on improving airfield and air traffic control systems. The airlines are nowhere near perfect, but they’re only able to play the cards they are dealt.

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  • SirWired

    There is nothing ridiculous about a Passenger’s Bill of Rights.

    Yes, the airports need improvement.
    Yes, there are insufficient runways.
    Yes, the taxiway design sucks in many airports.
    Yes, the ATC system is outdated.

    However, it is not as if all of these conditions happened suddenly. Yes, the airlines must “play the cards they are dealt”. But what the airlines are doing right now is taking the cards they are dealt, bluffing, and hope things turn out for the best.

    Certainly nothing could have been done about the fact that many flights were delayed or canceled. Weather happens, and it truly is out of the airlines’ control. However, if PHL’s terminal and gate system cannot handle fairly routine issues (weather certainly is not a new phenomena) then they could, in response:

    1) Stock the planes with supplies and service the lavatories to handle an extended ground hold.
    2) Have shuttle buses and roller stairs available to extract passengers from planes parked on the apron, (and out of the way of taxiways), but not at a gate. (Don’t most hubs have acres of concrete near the hangars?)
    3) Schedule fewer flights out of congested airports.
    4) Make the decision to divert or cancel incoming flights earlier if it looks like the ground facilities cannot handle them.

    What are the airlines doing instead?
    1) Reducing or eliminating on-board supplies of food, and only servicing the lavatories when they are getting full, even if things are looking bad for an on-time departure. I sincerely hope USAir does not actually charge for a beverage if the plane is stuck on a taxiway for hours on end; but I wouldn’t put it past them.
    2) Blithely ignoring the fact that there are insufficient gates to handle more than a few extra planes.
    3) Fighting the FAA tooth and nail as they try to reduce the number of takeoff and landing slots out of NYC-area airports.
    4) Keeping planes orbiting airports for hours on end, only to land and have no way to get to the gate.

    The airlines are more than welcome to whine about the current status of airports and traffic control, but in the meantime, they need to step up, face the facts, and set up operations that can actually handle disruptions.

    SirWired

  • SirWired

    I thought I would mention also that certainly a Passenger’s Bill of Rights is a lousy solution. It is almost certainly going to create issues where a better solution would have been to wait five more minutes for a takeoff clearance, or not get the lavatories serviced if it means missing a takeoff slot, etc.

    However, in the complete and total absence of common sense by the airlines, they have boxed themselves into a corner. We’ve tried self-regulation of the airlines. It apparently hasn’t worked.

    SirWired

  • Ned

    David, thanks for the article. While I think a major redesign of the Air Traffic Control System and upgrading of some of our major airports is what should be primarily occupying the FAA and Congress, as someone who has been caught twice in planes on the tarmac for more than 3 hours, I do agree with SirWired to the extent I think many of the issues raised in the Passenger Bill of Rights do need to be addressed.

    That being said, I again state I agree with your basic conclusion that we should “start focusing … attention on improving airfield and air traffic control systems,” and PHL is a perfect example of what hasn’t been done, and what can be done.

    PHL is sandwiched between New York, Newark, Baltimore and Washington, but it doesn’t belong to the airspace of Baltimore and Washington. The Northeast as a whole has an aviation problem due to population density unlike any other region in the US. We are so densely populated here that when a weather front moves through it effects all the airports. You’re right that with a new GPS based air traffic control system, we wouldn’t be stuck with so few flight lanes, and nightmares through which we just lived would be tremendously mitigated, or possibly eliminated.

    As to PHL itself, we have been waiting here breathlessly for the FAA to finally issue their final judgment on the PHL Enhanced Capacity Program, which would increase the capacity of take offs/landings at PHL by at least 40%, primarily by lengthening one of the current parallel runways to a length of 8,000 feet, and adding a 12,000 foot runway to the other two parallel runways which are to be lengthened from about 10,000 to 12,000 feet, making 4 parallel “full length” runways. This would permit two runways to be used simultaneously for take offs and two runways to be used simultaneously for landings, in a staggered pattern.

    If my counting is correct, the Bush administration has been dragging its heels so bad on this report and judgment that the PHL ECP report by the FAA is now almost 36 months late. I’ve been told it may finally be released this fall.

    Right now PHL uses 2 runways simultaneously at all times, one for landing and one for take offs. During west flow winds (70% of the time) PHL operates it’s short parallel runway for smaller planes take off/landings, flipping usage as needed. During east flow winds this 3rd runway generally can’t be used primarily due to flight path problems. The PHL ECP includes either moving the flight path problems (Plan A) or rebuilding the runway further north than currently situated (Plan B ).

    PHL’s short diagonal runway is generally only available for turboprop regional aircraft and small business jets.

    Execution of the PHL ECP would both increase capacity for PHL by 40% and bring certainty to the terminal situation, so terminal/gate expansion plans could be finalized and economically completed. Since one of the potential expansion plans includes replacing the existing terminals B-F completely, in general the airport and the airlines have been justifiably unwilling to commit to any further major redesigns and expansions of the terminals, since the addition of Terminal A.

    The FAA has to climb off their butts and get moving with these overdue plans at PHL and other airports, and get the GPS air traffic control system off the drawing board and into the towers and control centers.

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