It was a passengers' nightmare at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Conn., this weekend. Passengers on at least three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines plane say they were stranded on the tarmac for seven hours or more after being diverted from New York-area airports on Saturday.
The ordeal continued after they were let off and had to spend the night on cots and chairs in terminals.
A passenger on one of the diverted JetBlue planes says the crew ran out of snacks and bottled water for the last few hours of the delay. "The toilets were backed up. When you flushed, nothing would happen," said Andrew Carter, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel of Florida, who was traveling to cover the Miami Dolphins game against the New York Giants.
His plane took off from Fort Lauderdale for Newark Liberty International Airport at around 9 a.m. After being diverted to Hartford, the plane sat on the tarmac between around 1:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., he said.
A representative for Bradley International wasn't available to comment on the scope of the tarmac delays at the airport.
A JetBlue spokeswoman, Victoria Lucia, confirmed in an emailed statement that six of its planes, carrying a total of about 700 passengers, were diverted to Hartford as a result of a "confluence of events" including equipment failures at Newark and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport that prevented planes from landing in low visibility.
She declined to specify how long the planes sat on the tarmac at Bradley, but noted that 17 other flights with different carriers were also diverted to airport. Once the planes landed at Bradley, Lucia said that intermittent power outages at the airport made refueling and deplaning difficult.
Kate Hanni, executive editor for FlyersRights.org, said she got calls and emails from passengers and worried family members regarding at least four flights that were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours.
Brent Stanley and his wife were on one of those planes, an American Airlines flight that had originally been headed to JFK after taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.
After being diverted and landing in Hartford at 2:30 p.m., Stanley said passengers were given various reasons for being held on the tarmac, including the need to refuel and de-ice and the airport's limited capacity for handling international flights. He and his wife were eager to get back home to their two young sons in Lake Zurich, Ill. But they realized they didn't have it as bad as the parents who had infants on the plane.
"There was a lady in front of us with an 18-month-old daughter," Stanley said. "Another woman came by to borrow diapers because we couldn't get to our luggage."
After spending the night at the airport, Stanley was lucky to find two seats Sunday on an afternoon flight home to Chicago. But the headache isn't over yet; his luggage was headed to JFK because the Hartford airport crew wasn't able to handle international luggage, he said.
An American Airlines spokesman, Ed Martelle, said the passengers weren't allowed off the plane by customs at the airport. Martelle did not know the exact number of American planes that were diverted to Bradley or how long they sat on the tarmac.
Matt Shellenberger, who was on a JetBlue flight from Boston to JFK, said his plane was diverted to Bradley International and sat on the tarmac for seven hours.
The crew picked up trash regularly and handed out water and snacks and "everyone held their cool," he said. But his frustrations grew with each status update; the reasons for the delay kept changing as the hours passed.
Early on, passengers were told that the plane was just being refueled and would fly out soon, Shellenberger said. Then they were told it was being de-iced. Then there was an emergency on another plane.
"We were told we were the third plane in line to get to the gate when we landed," he said. "Then we stayed on the plane for seven hours."
Carter of the Sun Sentinel, who was on another JetBlue flight, reported a similar sequence of updates.
The saga continued long after passengers were let off the plane. The power outages from storms throughout Connecticut made booking hotel rooms difficult. As a result, many passengers just slept at the airport, Carter and Shellenberger said in separate interviews.
When they awoke, hundreds of passengers had to wait in line for hours just to figure out which flight they'd be on.
"That was most disappointing part," Carter said. "It seemed like there was no plan when we got off the plane."
In the morning, Carter said he and several other passengers rented a van to drive to New Jersey rather than wait for the afternoon flight JetBlue had scheduled to Newark.
It's not the first time JetBlue has had problems with tarmac delays. The New York-based airline also made headlines in 2007 when snow and ice storms stranded its planes for nearly 11 hours at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Such high-profile delays helped prompt a regulation last year that fines airlines for holding domestic flights on the tarmac for more than three hours. This year, the rule was extended to apply to international flights that are held on the tarmac for more than four hours.
The Department of Transportation often doesn't enforce the fines to their full extent unless delays are extreme, however. Passengers also do not get a cut of the fines.
Low-cost carriers are more prone to tarmac delays because letting passengers off planes can cost an airline a lot of money, said Hanni of FlyersRights.org.
If a plane is diverted because of a reason within the airline's control, such as a mechanical failure, ticket contracts usually state that passengers will be reimbursed for hotels, food and transportation. That means airlines do everything in their power to keep passengers on board in hope that the plane will be able to take off again.
JetBlue said that passengers who were diverted to Bradley International would be reimbursed for their fares and hotel expenses.
A representative for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which oversees Newark and JFK airports, could not immediately say how many total flights were diverted to other airports because of equipment failures.