Flights at JFK Sit on Tarmac for Hours
At least 28 flights, carrying thousands of passengers, became stranded on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport, one for close to 11 grueling hours, in the aftermath of this week’s paralyzing blizzard, officials said. The flights had one thing in common: they all began outside the United States.
This year, federal officials enacted a rule that penalizes airlines with hefty fines if planes are kept on the tarmac for more than three hours. But the new rule applies only to flights that begin and end in the United States.
The Transportation Department has been considering expanding the rule to include international flights and the strandings could force the agency to act.
“It was horrible,” said Shoham Elazar, 24, a dental student from Miami who arrived at Kennedy on Tuesday on Turkish Airlines Flight 1 from Istanbul. After a flight of about 10 hours, the plane sat on the tarmac for more than six hours before it could unload.
“After they announced it would be another hour and a half after the original hour and a half, it became pandemonium,” she said. “People were walking around, moaning, yelling. Children were screaming. People were complaining about children screaming.”
Kate Hanni, executive director of Flyers Rights, a passenger advocacy group that she formed after she was stuck for many hours on a tarmac in 2006, said, “This J.F.K. event, I’m almost certain, will be the tipping point.” After Ms. Hanni’s experience, a succession of similar, highly publicized ordeals led to the federal rule for domestic flights.
Ms. Hanni said that new federal rules should include an extension of the tarmac waiting penalties to international flights.
The effect of the domestic flight policy was starkly on display in the storm’s aftermath this week.
Steve Coleman, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the region’s three major airports, said four domestic flights of American Eagle airlines experienced delays of more than two hours waiting for a gate after arriving at La Guardia Airport on Tuesday. But in each case, he said, the passengers were unloaded from the planes by bus and taken to the terminal before the three-hour cutoff.
Mr. Coleman said that was not possible with the international flights at Kennedy because the passengers would need to be held in a secure area before going through immigration and customs. He said there was no suitable area at the airport for that.
The storm, which lasted throughout the day Sunday, dumped about 20 inches of snow at Kennedy and was accompanied by high winds. The airport shut down at 7 p.m. Sunday and did not reopen until 6 p.m. Monday. When it reopened, there was a long backlog of departing and arriving flights.
The international flights that became stranded on Tuesday had taken off without checking in advance to see if a gate would be available when they arrived, Mr. Coleman said. When they got on the ground in New York, there were no empty gates and the waiting began.
The Port Authority said that at least 28 international flights were stuck on the tarmac with long delays. That included Cathay Pacific Flight 840 from Hong Kong, which arrived at 2:15 a.m. Tuesday and was not able to get to a gate until about 1 p.m., nearly 11 hours later, Mr. Coleman said.
China Airlines Flight 12 from Taipei, which stopped over in Anchorage, arrived at Kennedy at 8:37 p.m. Tuesday and was not able to unload at a gate until 5:47 a.m. Wednesday, more than nine hours later. For passengers who started out in Taipei, the total duration of the trip, including the wait on the tarmac, was more than 25 hours.
Of the more than two dozen flights for which the Port Authority supplied information about the duration of the delays, all had waits of more than three hours, and 11 waited on the tarmac for more than six hours before reaching a gate. Mr. Coleman said that the authority was still compiling information and that the total number of stranded flights might increase. He said no flights that arrived on Wednesday had delays of longer than three hours, however.
The new tarmac waiting rule for domestic flights went into effect in late April. Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said there were 12 reported cases from May 1 to Sept. 30 of domestic flights that spent more than three hours on the tarmac. In that period a year ago, there were 535 flights with waits that exceeded three hours. Ms. Alair said the agency was investigating the 12 cases from this year and had not yet levied any fines. Airlines can be fined $27,500 a passenger for delays that violate the rule.