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OP-ED | Looking for Lessons in the Airport Snowstorm Fiasco

by Heath W. Fahle | Dec 9, 2011 1:25pm
(3) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

They weren’t supposed to be here, but for hundreds of people traveling on Saturday, Oct. 29, that’s where they ended up. Twenty-eight flights were diverted to Hartford/Springfield’s Bradley International Airport that day, straining the airport’s capacity to the brink just as a historic snowstorm arrived in the area. Many passengers were stranded on the tarmac for hours as airport officials struggled to resolve the crisis.

As I noted previously, pilots and passengers inside the marooned aircraft described a scene of barely restrained chaos. At one point, a pilot advised Bradley officials not to send police to the airplane for fear of provoking an altercation. He later requested officers board the plane to pacify passengers. It took more than seven hours to get all of the passengers off the airplanes.

The federal Department of Transportation hosted a forum on flight diversions last week to analyze the events that transpired and discuss new procedures to prevent such delays in the future. The look back added even more of that day’s sorry story to the public record:

“The storm knocked out power to the airport several times during the day. Luggage belts quit working. Tugs that move planes out of the way couldn’t get traction on the ice. Planes had trouble refueling and de-icing because of the power outages, preventing departures.”

It reads like a Keystone Kops routine.

It is clear that the airport simply received more diverted flights than they could handle and it became an issue of basic mathematics. Bradley received 28 extra flights but has only 23 gates – and regularly scheduled operations fill most of those gates. Once the unexpected guests were on the ground, Bradley just didn’t have the capacity to accommodate so many extra passengers with their normal operating procedures.

This is an explanation but not an absolution. The failure to come up with an alternative solution to get people off the stranded planes still lies squarely at the feet of the airport administrators. More broadly, it highlights that the current standard method of deplaning passengers, pulling the dozens of different types of aircraft with widely varying sizes, shapes, and configurations up to a jetway, is ripe for innovation.

Though the news accounts don’t touch on this, it’s worth wondering why aircraft were diverted into the path of the storm rather than away from it. It was clear that at the beginning of the crisis, several of the airlines anticipated that landing in Hartford was going to be a relatively brief affair. They intended to refuel, wait for the problem that caused the diversion to resolve, and then proceed on to their original destinations. With the knowledge that a big snowstorm was on its way, though, those expectations seem pretty silly.

The solutions proposed were reasonable if underwhelming. Officials suggested that the FAA set up a website that would “allow airlines to check conditions at airports before sending unscheduled planes there,” and increase number of airports that participate in planning conference calls. The taxpaying public should be thrilled – all they want is a blog and more conference calls. Those should be inexpensive solutions.

Whether measures are taken, however, don’t mitigate the bottom line point that should concern Connecticut’s officials: once passengers are on the ground, it shouldn’t take all day to figure out how to get them off the airplane.

This fiasco was largely overshadowed in Connecticut by the hapless CL&P power restoration efforts wake of the storm. State officials ought not be distracted, however. There should be further investigations on the subject and administrators held accountable for the failures of leadership.

Heath W. Fahle is the Policy Director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy and a former Executive Director of the Connecticut Republican Party. Contact Heath about this article by visiting www.heathwfahle.com

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(3) Comments

posted by: ... | December 9, 2011  4:44pm

...

Great article Heath. This was a blip amongst the chaos of the snowstorm. Should this be simply a state issue though (since we mostly deal with snow issues like this)? Or do these protocols require a national (federal) discussion so all airports have guidelines to meet the various storms that affect their regions?

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | December 11, 2011  12:00pm

A big part of this was the international flights.  BDL no longer has a full time CBP immigration service so they only come for scheduled charters.  Big jumbos from Europe could not land at JFK so they went to Bradley.  A protocol for getting stranded international passengers off and into the airport (even if they then have to wait for immigration to show up) is needed.

posted by: PsiCop | December 11, 2011  12:32pm

Perhaps the worst part of this fiasco for the plane in question was that customs officials refused to establish and staff a secure area in the terminal to house the passengers, if they could be deplaned. They insisted they had to be given “advance notice” of any such need, and since none had been provided, they absolutely were not going to lift a finger to do anything about it.

Of course, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened. It occurred with a flight this summer that had been diverted to BDL. They did not, at that time, have the excuse of a lack of power to explain their incompetent response.

Back then officials had promised to “learn” from that incident. Obviously they did not actually “learn” anything, if they went and repeated the same behavior again. Pardon me if I don’t believe they will improve things, now.