Runway-bound: A holiday flight becomes ugly

Tuesday, January 09, 2007By Scott McCartney, The Wall Street Journal

After hours of sitting on the runway, the toilets on the American Airlines jet were overflowing. There was no water to be found and no food except for a box of pretzel bags. A pregnant woman sat crying; an unaccompanied teen sobbed. The captain walked up and down the aisle of the MD-80, trying to calm angry passengers. At one point, families with children lined up to be bused to the terminal, but a bus never came.

Flight 1348, a San Francisco-Dallas run, had been diverted to Austin, Texas, because of thunderstorms. It was the Friday before New Year’s Day and the jet was parked on the tarmac beside other stray flights. Planes came and went, but Flight 1348 was left waiting, American confirms.

After more than eight hours on the ground, and 12 hours after the plane had left San Francisco, the captain told passengers he was going to an empty gate, even though he didn’t have permission.

“He said, ‘Enough is enough. I should have done this a long time ago,'” recalls passenger Cindy Welch, who was trying to get home to Missouri. American won’t identify the captain.
Flight 1348 was one of 85 flights American diverted from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport that day. Some turned into true travel nightmares, the likes of which haven’t been seen since January 1999, when passengers on a Northwest Airlines flight were trapped for seven hours on a parked plane that had landed nearly a day late.

American’s Flight 1682 from Oklahoma City to Dallas pushed back at 2:07 p.m. on Dec. 29, then waited eight hours and two minutes before canceling and going back to the terminal, according to data compiled by FlightStats Inc.

Flight 37 from Zurich, Switzerland, to Dallas was diverted to Tulsa, Okla., where it sat for 10 hours. Pilots couldn’t take off because they reached federal limits on duty time, American says. Tulsa doesn’t have a Customs and Immigration facility so no one could get off. By the time the plane reached Dallas, landing at 1:33 a.m., according to Federal Aviation Administration data, passengers had been on board more 22 hours.

How does this happen? After years of cutting staff, carriers are less capable of handling crises — from not having enough telephone reservationists to handle calls, or extra bodies to empty toilet tanks or spare pilots and flight attendants to help out when delays stack up. Congestion in the air and at airports exacerbates the messes caused when storms hit.

Delays have increased steadily over the past five years, approaching levels not seen since 1999 and 2000. The rate of mishandled bags is 68 percent higher than in 2002 — that year was a recent low — and consumer complaints have increased in each of the past four years.
AMR Corp.’s American, the world’s biggest airline, says it was reluctant to cancel flights on Dec. 29 because planes were packed with holiday travelers. Instead, when storms were forecast at its Dallas hub, it opted to delay flights. As it happens, Dallas got whacked with by an unseasonably strong thunderstorm that didn’t move out of the area for hours. Landings slowed to a crawl and lightning forced ground workers indoors several times. Planes on the ground waited, thinking skies would clear, but they didn’t.

The carrier says it is re-evaluating its flight-diversion strategy. It is also is studying whether it should adopt a harder time limit on how long planes can sit and wait.

In the case of Flight 1348, according to interviews with four passengers plus officials at American, the problems were compounded by a lack of staff, the result of cost-cutting and holiday vacations, and some bad decisions.

American’s Austin operations were overwhelmed when 14 planes landed unexpectedly, American says. The airline delivered some snacks and drinks to airplanes, but quickly ran out. A worker tried to service toilets when he could get time, but was held back by lightning. American tried to call in more staff with little success due to the holiday weekend. “We got caught short-handed,” says American spokesman John Hotard.

American also made a pivotal decision: According to airline officials, Austin managers decided to focus on handling regular flights to other cities, such as Chicago and St. Louis, hoping they could stay on schedule. They let the diverted Dallas planes sit.

And sit.

Flight 1348 was snake-bit from the start. The plane was an hour late leaving San Francisco because of mechanical problems that forced a switch of airplanes. The flight left the gate at 7:10 a.m., instead of its 6:05 scheduled departure, and the delay proved critical. An on-time arrival would have beaten the bad weather.

When Flight 1348 reached west Texas, storms were moving in. American says the pilot was told to divert to Austin where he could refuel and wait for a break in the weather for the short hop to Dallas.
After landing, American allowed about 20 local Austin and San Antonio passengers to get off rather than wait to fly to Dallas only to hop on a connection back to Austin. Their luggage, however, remained on board, say passengers and American.

American expected the storms to hit between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., and then move out of the area. Instead, they started earlier and lingered into the night. For hours, the crew thought they’d ultimately be able to fly to Dallas, only to have hopes dashed. Worse, the storm had moved into Austin, too.

Whether to keep waiting or give up is one of the most difficult decisions for airlines, taxing both operations and finances. Often travelers and airlines prefer to wait as long as possible for the chance to reach their destinations. Moving a plane to a gate for a bathroom break could cost a flight its place in line among the hundreds trying to leave. It could also mean the crew might run into federal time limits that regulate the work day. Unless new pilots and flight attendants are available, continuing the trip would have to wait until the next day.

“If we take you to the gate, and it’s a holiday period, we may not get you out of there for three days,” says Mr. Hotard.

For Flight 1348, conditions in the 11-foot-wide MD-80 cabin quickly deteriorated — toilets overflowed, families ran out of baby diapers, one man exclaimed he was down to his last piece of Nicorette gum, passengers recall. “It was pathetic. The toilets had gone from gas station to a Carlos Santana concert,” said Andy Welch, husband of Cindy Welch.

American says a worker did empty toilet tanks on Flight 1348, but not until the plane had been on the ground for five hours or more. Even then, the stench typically lingers on an aircraft that isn’t moving, one airline official says.

The captain told passengers he was calling everyone he could think of to get permission to use a gate. He told them he talked to two American chief pilots as well as the manager of the Austin operations. The airline confirms the Austin manager was in contact with the pilots.

Many people at American were aware of Flight 1348. A mother whose son was on the plane called a company spokesman, one passenger called a Dallas television station, another called a friend who was a freelance writer, who wrote a story that day for the Dallas Morning News.
Instead of opening a gate for Flight 1348, American’s four gates were used to operate the airline’s regular schedule, including a few flights to Dallas that did depart. “The pilot kept telling us they would not give us a gate,” says Katie Dickson, who was trying to get to Belize with her husband and five-year-old daughter. “At one point he said, ‘I am so embarrassed for American Airlines.'”

Several passengers got increasingly angry and yelled at the crew, but the captain, Mrs. Dickson recalls, kept calm. “It was a little scary to have that many people in such a closed space,” she says.

Passengers rallied — some mothers digging out granola bars for a young man who was famished, some people translating for a couple who didn’t speak English. A few passengers were allowed down the staircase in the plane’s tail to the tarmac to walk dogs that had been in the cargo hold. Mrs. Dickson says she found the ordeal “unbelievable, just mind-boggling.”

At 9 p.m., Flight 1348’s passengers finally got inside the Austin terminal, where they couldn’t find anyone from American to help them with flights or hotels. Passengers say the scene was chaotic. Only about half the luggage made it off the flight. American says its baggage system in Austin was overwhelmed by the volume.

The Dicksons rented a car and drove to Dallas, and were able to get a flight to Belize the next day for their shortened vacation. The Welches waited in a line at the ticket counter, which was staffed by just two employees, they recall. They stood in line three hours. When they reached the counter, Mrs. Welch asked for a hotel voucher. The agent declined, Mrs. Welch says, saying the problem was caused by weather and American wasn’t responsible.

Mrs. Welch began crying. She argued that the flight wouldn’t have been in Austin if not for the original delay in San Francisco. The ticket agent relented and gave her a voucher for a hotel stay and breakfast.

“The most maddening thing was no one from American Airlines ever approached us and apologized,” she says. Adds Mrs. Dickson: “I still don’t understand what happened. If I had an explanation from American, I’d feel better.”

American’s Mr. Hotard says the airline is truly sorry for the mess. He says one reason the airline may not have contacted customers to apologize is that its Fort Worth headquarters, where customer-service specialists work, was closed for four days over New Year’s.