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We Slept on the Floor at JFK Last Night, Thanks to Weather and the Tarmac Delay Law

September 17, 2010 at 4:39 PM | by | ()

You've watched us move on tarmac regulations from reserved enthusiasm through deep skepticism to outright disdain. We've been predicting unintended consequences for months, and we elevated our forecast to "complete crapshow" last May when we had our first personal brush with Congress's new three hour rule, which imposes on airlines $27,500 per passenger left on the tarmac over three hours.

Now that we've had another run-in with the law, we can report very graphically on how these kind of misguided regulations play out. Specifically, they play out with us spending a night at JFK, and creating a total security breakdown along the way.

When the law was was originally being debated airlines insisted that it would trigger more flight delays and cancellations, since they would have to overcompensate by keeping passengers at the gate instead of taking the chance on weather clearing at the 179th minute. The consumer rights group behind the law, which is led by a deeply sketchy woman who may have manipulated data and misled Congress as part of a personal vendetta, implied that airlines would just magically solve the problem or try harder or whatever.

Turns out that the airlines were right and the deeply sketchy woman was wrong, which only makes sense since airlines already had plenty of incentives to avoid public relations disasters, which you can tell since passenger satisfaction is running at all time highs.

Anyway, we were flying JetBlue IAD-JFK and then JFK-LAX with an AYCJ pass. Nothing special. As our flight time approached, rain started falling in DC, and that awful storm tore through New York. "No problem," the pilot assured us, since the plane was literally first in line to take off. Then we had to wait another hour while Air Force One was in the air. By then the wait was too close to the three hour limit, so we had to taxi back to the gate for another 20 minutes. Game over.

The punchline: as soon as the plane hit the gate, the pilot was given a new liftoff time roughly 40 minutes in the future.

This disaster works on at least three levels. First, taxiing back to the gate cost every passenger at least a couple hours of their life, since the plane could have taken off if not for the three-hour rule, which would have preempted the entire subsequent fiasco. Second, returning didn't really help anyone since the plane had to leave again in a few minutes. So at a minimum we're already in "worse than useless" territory.

Third, and this was absolutely amazing, the FAA appears to have totally forgotten that the government has imposed security guidelines on airports. The "checkout" process for passengers getting off the plane was a single poor, overwhelmed woman standing in front of a cascading wave of angry customers. She was trying to track every passenger by holding a piece of paper against her leg and writing down their seat numbers with a blue felt marker, while desperately blocking people from jumping over chairs or getting around her some other way. Then as people came back to the plane she checked off their seat numbers, hoping that the same person who originally left was the one coming back.

And of course once everyone was back on the plane the flight attendants needed another 10 or 15 minutes to do a head count, extending the tarmac delay even more. And then the plane had to get in the back of the line, which added another 20 or 25 minutes to the delay. That's some smart regulating right there. Anyway, obviously we missed our connection at JFK by about 15 minutes. Then we spent the next 7 hours in the airport.

Our ruling on the new tarmac delay law, based on this and other first-hand experience with the shitshows it creates? FAIL.

[Photo: Anton Nossik / Wiki Commons]

Related Stories:
· Airport Hell [Jaunted]
· Airline Industry [Jaunted]

Archived Comments:

Sleeping on Floor at JFK

Wow! What a nightmare! I missed a connection on a trip last month, but it wasn't because of some badly-thought-out legislation. I've been stuck on a plane out on the tarmac for a couple hours on a pair of occasions, and I admit when I first heard about the legislation restricting the time spent out there, it sounded like a good idea. It's sad to hear the legislation backfired. Hopefully you won't be stuck spending the night in an airport again any time soon, but if find yourself in a similar situation again at some point, you should try a hospitality exchange site called Tripping (https://www.tripping.com). I know during the flight disruptions caused by the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, members of that site stepped up and helped stranded travelers. I hope the rest of your trip was lovely!

"Allegedly Deeply Sketchy Woman Here"

Rhetoric seems to be this authors specialty. If one believes all of the accusations about myself and our group Flyersrights.org in Travel Weekly one might also surmise that I'm brewing toads heads right now! Travel Weekly is a trade publication that gets serious advertising dollars and free air travel from the airlines. Case and Point. And this flight story does not make a compelling case for a failure of the three hour rule. In fact the three hour rule is working best at JFK...the FAA has installed a metering system there to prevent planes from leaving the gate until they have a hard departure of one hour. Your flight never should have pushed back from the gate until they had a hard departure. If you ended up being on the tarmac that long, it was entirely the airlines decision to do so. There is no reason why you couldn't have waited inside the terminal without sitting on the tarmac for any length of time. Weather doesn't generally move in that fast. Your flight being cancelled was due to weather, not the tarmac rule. Although the airlines are telling folks that the tarmac rule is the reason for the cancellation in order to sway you against the rule and since you are a Rhetoric expert you should understand that. We actually got more flight cancellation complaint calls on our hotline before the rule was implemented. Really, really, for a scholar you should be a little more articulate when speaking about these events. To be credible include a flight number so that your information can be verified. But that said your story doesn't hold water because if ATC prevented take off they don't have to let you off the plane. There are three caveats to the rule, ATC, Disruption of airport operations and Safety. If ATC prevented take off the three hour rule would not apply. Period. Lots and lots of people have flights cancelled, lots of people have flight disruptions...it's never fun. But to blame the first passengers rights regulation ever implemented without understanding how the rule works is just shameful.

response to

katehanni, You are grossly oversimplifying air travel at the busiest airports. I understand where you are coming from regarding not wanting to sit on the tarmac. But if it were only that simple. "hard times" as you refer to do not exist in the real world. At best they are guestimates and very fluid. Contrary to your assertion, weather constantly changes and at large airports where airspace is constricted a minor change in weather, whether winds on the ground or convective cells, etc has enormous impact on arrival flows. the closer your departure airport is to the arrival the more you can see huge swings in departure times (sometimes hours). Best intention is always to get the airplane in the air but when conditions are changing the best place to be is loaded and at the runway. Staying at the gate, while perfect world, is not always an option. In particular, JFK, while they do have a new metering process which has greatly reduced taxiway congestion, quite often the option is not to stay at the terminal do to the obvious need for arriving airplanes to use that gates. Rather you are sent to a remote hard stand to hold until your taxi time. thus beginning the three hour time limit. The simple reality is nobody wants extended airplane sit. Hold the airline responsible for water and food and clean restrooms, absolutely, in the absence of those conditions return to the terminal. But, have this three hour limit merely turns a bad day into a horrible one.

Flight info

> To be credible include a flight number so that > your information can be verified. But that said > your story doesn't hold water because if ATC > prevented take off they don't have to let you off > the plane. Hi Kate, Sorry I haven't gotten to your query re credibility earlier. The 9/16 IAD flight that had to return to the gate because of your/FlyersRights's three hour rule was JetBlue 1308. The JFK flight that we subsequently missed because of the rule was JetBlue 677. It could be that the rule you/FlyersRights pushed is so convoluted that airlines and regulators can't really understand it. That's kind of to be expected, since legislators had to attached all kinds of amendments to avoid letting the rule totally destroy the airline industry (a requirement that perhaps, as some pointed out at the time, should have cast doubt on the advisability of the entire idea). Certainly the convoluted nature of the legislation would help explain your confusion as to why the airline returned to the gate. It would also explain the FAA's assurance to airlines that it won't really enforce the law to its full extent, lest it - again - totally destroy the airline industry.


I am more sympathetic to your detractors after reading your post. You should stop taking credit for JFK metering, as it was not developed for your law - it was for the JFK summer runway construction restrictions on taxi space. It is in the process of becoming policy since it was helpful for traffic, but Airlines still push based on tower choices, and often wait out metering on hardstands not at gate with door open. Plus read the article, this happened @ IAD not JFK and the flight was not cancelled, just additionally delayed due to the mandated return to gate you sought. In fact JFK had even worse tarmac delays that night as weather does move quickly and closed western departure routes after "metered" planes were already in line. There is no such thing as a "Hard Departure [time]" especially in bad weather. Times get later or get sooner and in the latter case you miss them if you are not in line, let alone on a gate and not boarded. If your description of the "caveats" to the law were accurate, the law would be useless as these are about the only reason aircraft delay - as in your unfortunate case which started your rampage. Airlines do not sit still on whim - there would be no profit or other motive. Meanwhile Airlines can't risk million dollar fines hoping enforcement is as nonsensical as your explanation. Planes leave when the tower says OK and if you are first in line most travelers want to stay first not return to the gate and start over or cancel. The reason your complaint line calls are down is that your 15 minutes of fame are over, as real data on cancellations and the impact of your law is becoming available. Frequent travelers who understand the system warned you how this would work out. You should have listened, then you might be a valuable participant in air travel development rather than just another product of our "anything to get on TV" culture. Sorry to be rude, as I previously thought of you as well intentiond but misguided. There are so many more innaccuracies in your post, but I have gone on too long already.