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    Office of the Secretary of Transportation

    Report Number: AV-2007-077

    Date Issued: September 25, 2007

  • Memorandum U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Secretary of Transportation Office of Inspector General

    Subject: ACTION: Actions Needed To Minimize Long, On-Board Flight Delays Office of the Secretary of Transportation

    Date: September 25, 2007

    Report Number AV-2007-077

    From: Calvin L. Scovel III Inspector General

    Reply to Attn. of: JA-1

    To: Secretary of Transportation Thousands of passengers suffered long, on-board aircraft delays triggered by severe weather last winter, causing serious concerns about the airlines contingency planning for such situations.

    On December 29, 2006, the Dallas-Fort Worth area experienced unseasonably severe weather that generated massive lightning storms and a tornado warning; this caused the airport to shut down operations several times over an 8-hour period. American Airlines (American) diverted over 100 flights, and many passengers on those flights were stranded on board aircraft on the tarmac for as long as 9 hours. The number of diversions on this date was second only to the number reached on September 11, 2001.

    On February 14, 2007, snow and ice blanketed the northeastern United States. JetBlue Airways (JetBlue) stranded hundreds of passengers aboard its aircraft on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) for as long as 10 and a half hours. At 1 point during that day, JetBlue had 52 aircraft on the ground with only 21 available gates. JetBlue has publicly admitted shortcomings in its systems that were in place at the time for handling such situations.

    This report presents the results of the review you requested in response to these incidents. Our audit objectivesbased on your February 26, 2007, memorandumwere to: (1) look into the specific incidents involving American and JetBlue, during which passengers were stranded on board aircraft for extended


  • periods of time; (2) examine the Air Transport Associations (ATA)1 member airlines2 customer service plans, contracts of carriage,3 and internal policies dealing with long, on-board delays; (3) highlight best practices that could help deal with these situations; and (4) provide recommendations on what airlines, airports, and the Government can do to prevent recurrence of such events.

    Other incidents in 2006 and 2007 highlight airline customer service issues and the need for coordinated contingency planning to prevent long, on-board delays:

    On December 20, 2006, severe blizzards closed Denvers airport, causing several flights to divert to other airports. United Airlines diverted two flights to Cheyenne, Wyoming. The following morning, Uniteds flight crew and attendants boarded the aircraft and departed, leaving all 110 passengers behind to take care of themselves.

    On March 16, 2007, an ice storm hit the Northeast, causing numerous delays and cancellations and forcing passengers to endure long, on-board flight delays. In fact, several Office of Inspector General staff were flying that day and observed first-hand a 9-hour, on-board delay.

    On July 29, 2007, because of severe weather, a Continental Airlines flight from Caracas, Venezuela, to Newark, New Jersey, was diverted to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where passengers were stranded on the tarmac for over 4 hours. Because this was an international flight, Federal law prohibited Continental from allowing passengers off the plane; however, Continental could have provided for customers essential needs during this ordeal.

    On August 9, 2007, severe, east-bound weather stranded hundreds of US Airways passengers on board aircraft at Philadelphia International Airport, some for up to 6 hours.

    On August 11, 2007, at Los Angeles International Airport, more than 17,000 in-bound passengers on 73 international flights were stranded on board aircraft or in the terminal holding area for 10 hours because U.S. Customs authorities were unable to screen them due to a computer outage. We note that in incidents involving international flights, airlines and airports have little, if

    1 The Air Transport Association is the trade association for Americas largest air carriers. Its members transport over

    90 percent of all the passenger and cargo traffic in the United States. 2 The 13 ATA member airlines included in our review were: Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, ATA

    Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Midwest Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways. During our review, ATA Airlines terminated its membership in ATA.

    3 A contract of carriage is the document air carriers use to specify legal obligations to passengers. Each air carrier must provide a copy of its contract of carriage free of charge upon request. The contract of carriage is also available for public inspection at airports and ticket offices.

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  • any, control over the amount of time passengers are inconvenienced because passenger screening and processing is outside of their control.

    We conducted this review between March 2007 and September 2007, in accordance with generally accepted Government Auditing Standards as prescribed by the Comptroller General of the United States. To conduct our analysis, we requested a range of data from selected airlines related to weather, operations, and customer service. Exhibits A through D provide details on: (A) our objectives, scope and methodology, and related audits; (B) selected airlines terms and conditions for handling long, on-board delays; (C) selected airports policies for assisting in long, on-board delays; and (D) stakeholders visited or contacted.

    BACKGROUND Accommodating passengers during long, on-board delays is a major customer service challenge that airlines face. However, this is not a new problem for the airlines. Airline customer service first took center stage in January 1999, when hundreds of passengers remained in planes on snowbound Detroit runways for up to 8 and a half hours. After those events, both the House and Senate considered whether to enact a passenger bill of rights.

    Figure 1. Provisions of the Airline Customer Service Commitment

    Offer the lowest fare available.

    Notify customers of known delays, cancellations, and diversions. Deliver baggage on time. Support an increase in the baggage liability limit. Allow reservations to be held or cancelled. Provide prompt ticket refunds. Properly accommodate disabled and special-needs passengers. Meet customers essential needs during long, on-aircraft delays. Handle bumped passengers with fairness and consistency. Disclose travel itinerary, cancellation policies, frequent flyer rules, and aircraft configuration. Ensure good customer service from code-share partners. Be more responsive to customer complaints.

    Source: Airline Customer Service Commitment, June 1999

    Following hearings after the January 1999 incident, Congress, the Department of Transportation (DOT), and ATA agreed that the air carriers should have an opportunity to improve their customer service without legislation. To demonstrate the airlines ongoing dedication to improving air travel, ATA and its member airlines executed the Airline Customer Service Commitment (the Commitment),4 on June 17, 1999. Each ATA airline agreed to prepare a customer service plan implementing the 12 provisions of the Commitment (see figure 1); including a provision to meet customers essential needs during long, on-aircraft delays; and prepare contingency plans to address such circumstances. 4 ATA signed the Commitment on behalf of the then 14 ATA member airlines (Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines,

    American Airlines, American Trans Air, America West Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, Midwest Express Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Trans World Airlines, United Airlines, and US Airways). JetBlue was not an airline or a member of ATA when ATA made its commitments.

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  • Because aviation delays and cancellations continued to worsen, eventually reaching their peak during the summer of 2000, Congress directed our office to evaluate the effectiveness of the Commitment and the customer service plans of individual ATA airlines. We issued our final report5 in February 2001. Although the ATA airlines made progress toward meeting the Commitment, we found that the Commitment did not directly address the underlying causes of deep-seated customer dissatisfactionflight delays and cancellations. This is still the case today with record-breaking flight delays and cancellations leading to more long, on-board delays.

    Rising Flight Delays Are Leading to More Long, On-Board Delays Based on the first 7 months of the year, it is clear that 2007 may be the busiest6 travel period since the peak of 2000 and may surpass the 2000 record levels for flight delays, cancellations, and diversions. So far in 2007, nearly 28 percent of flights were delayed, cancelled, or diverted compared to about 24 percent during the same period in 2006. In 2006, nearly 25 percent of domestic flights were delayed, cancelled, or diverted, the highest percentage since peak year 2000, when it hit 27 percent. Figure 2 illustrates the changes in percentage of domestic flights delayed, cancelled, or diverted from 2000 to 2007.

    Figure 3. Average Length of Arrival Delays for Years 2000 to 2007




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