Bloomberg News

U.S. Reviews JetBlue Strandings That Prompted Tears, Shouts

November 02, 2011

(Updates with customs agency’s comment in 18th paragraph.)

Oct. 31 (Bloomberg) -- JetBlue Airways Corp. and American Airlines face a U.S. Transportation Department probe after passengers were stranded on planes for as long as 7 1/2 hours when they were routed to Connecticut during a snowstorm.

The flights were among 23 diverted to Hartford’s Bradley airport on Oct. 29 by the storm and periodic equipment failures at two New York-area airports. Six were flown by JetBlue, which wouldn’t say how long any of its jets were stuck on the tarmac.

The Transportation Department will determine whether the airlines violated a federal rule requiring that passengers be allowed to leave stopped planes after three hours or face fines as high as $27,500 a customer. As many as 1,500 travelers were marooned at the airport overnight.

“In some ways, it doesn’t matter what the pilots do in that situation because there’s not a whole lot they can control when they’re diverted,” Les Westbrooks, a former American Airlines pilot who now teaches at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said in an interview. “You can’t let people off without help from someone on the outside.”

U.S. officials are looking at JetBlue Flight 504 and “several other” flights in which passengers may have been stranded more than three hours, the Transportation Department said in a statement today. The Federal Aviation Administration said it is conducting a “comprehensive review” of how the air- traffic system responded to the inclement weather.

Electricity Off

The wintry storm, the biggest in October in decades, left more than 2 million homes and businesses without power today, after hitting Connecticut, New York and New Jersey with a record snowfall.

Some flights were diverted during the storm because of “intermittent problems with the FAA’s ground-based air traffic control systems” at New York’s Kennedy and New Jersey’s Newark Liberty airports, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said in a statement.

The FAA hasn’t released specific information on the failures. The agency issued a statement saying its review of the weekend would include “equipment performance.”

After hours on the ground at Bradley International Airport, JetBlue Flight 504’s cabin grew tense with crying babies and yelling adults, said Andrew Carter, a sports reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel who wrote about the experience.

‘Cursing, Yelling’

“There were people cursing, yelling, threatening to call the police,” Carter said in a video account on the newspaper’s website.

Flight 504’s pilot asked air traffic controllers at one point to send police to the Airbus SAS A320 jet, which carried 129 passengers and a crew of six. Diabetic and paraplegic passengers on board needed assistance, the pilot said.

“We can’t seem to get any help from our own company,” the pilot said in an air traffic control recording posted on LiveATC.net. “Is there any way you can get a tug and a towbar out to us and get us towed somewhere to a gate or something? I don’t care, take us anywhere.”

JetBlue declined to comment on remarks by the pilot, who said the plane had been on the ground 7 1/2 hours. The flight left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at 10:07 a.m. local time.

Services Sought

“We worked with the airport to secure services, including remote deplaning and lav servicing,” JetBlue said in an e- mailed statement. “Obviously, we would have preferred deplaning much sooner than we did.”

The airline said it was contacting customers directly to apologize and offer a full round-trip refund. New York-based JetBlue blamed a “confluence of events,” including the storm and the equipment failures at Kennedy and Newark. JetBlue said 17 flights were diverted in the area Oct. 29.

Intermittent power failures at the Hartford airport made refueling and deplaning by jet bridge difficult, JetBlue said.

American Flight 45 from Paris to New York also was diverted to Hartford, and passengers were stuck onboard for 7 hours, 27 minutes, said Ed Martelle, a spokesman. U.S. Customs officials at the airport wouldn’t let the 219 passengers leave the Boeing Co. 767, Martelle said in an interview.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection works closely with the airlines and airport authorities to process international flights when they enter the country,” the agency said in an e- mailed statement. “Power outages and other non-CBP issues contributed to the delays experienced by international passengers diverted to Bradley International Airport.”

An agency spokeswoman, Jenny Burke, didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up telephone message. John Wallace, the airport’s director of communications, declined to comment on the stranded flights pending further investigation.

“Our resources were stretched to the limit,” he said in an interview. “Bradley attempted to accommodate approximately 1,000 to 1,500 passengers who were stranded here Saturday night into Sunday with cots, blankets, food and water.”

In 2007, mid-February winter storms led JetBlue to cancel almost 1,700 flights and strand more than 130,000 passengers. The board subsequently replaced founder David Neeleman as chief executive officer and adopted a passenger rights policy.

--With assistance from Alan Levin in Washington and Stephen West in San Francisco. Editor: James Langford, Ed Dufner

To contact the reporters on this story: Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at maryc.s@bloomberg.net; Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta at mcredeur@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ed Dufner at edufner@bloomberg.net


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