(photo courtesy Daniel Incandela)
My column on USATODAY.com this month, Are airports ready for the 3-hour rule?, takes a look at how airports are gearing up for the April 29th roll-out of the new Department of Transportation (DOT) rule to upgrade protections for airline passengers.
We’ve been hearing a lot from airlines – they’re not happy – but I was curious about what the fall-out might be for airports if (when?) more planes end up turning around and coming back to the terminal and if (when?) more people end up stuck at the airport.
I was imagining I’d hear worry, maybe even hysteria, from airport officials. That’s not what I got. In fact, the responses I got down the line were more along the lines of “We’re ready. Bring it on.”
You can read the complete column – and the very intriguing comments readers have been posting – on USATODAY.com. Here’s some of what airport officials told me:
Airports at the ready
Long before the DOT announced enhanced protections for airline passengers, airports were holding meetings to work on creating tool kits and best practices that could be used during excessive flight delays. At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, for example, executive vice president for operations Jim Crites says that in 2007 the airport began purchasing extra equipment to help deplane passengers quickly. DFW also started beefing up communications with airlines, with regional airports that might get diverted flights and with airport concessionaires that might need to stay open later than usual during irregular operations. “The customer expects everyone to be on the same page. So instead of doing business in isolation, you began to see more coordination, more teaming up and partnering across entities.”
It’s the same story at many small and medium-sized airports. “After that incident when people were stuck on a JetBlue plane in New York for nine hours we agreed as a management team that we would not let that happen here,” says Russell Widmar, the aviation director at California’s Fresno Yosemite International Airport, “So we’ve had our own passengers’ bill of rights in place for almost a year and a half now.”
The plan that the team worked out was successfully put to the test in January 2008, when severe weather on the California coast brought 14 diverted planes to Fresno Airport. “It really isn’t any problem dealing with extra flights,” says Widmar, “The only difficulty is that these passengers don’t want to be in Fresno. They want to be San Francisco or wherever they were headed. But if they end up here, no matter when they drop in, we have services available for them. No one needs to be stuck on the airplane.”
Widmar believes that by now pretty much every airport is ready to deal with this type of activity. That includes the many small airports not currently covered by the DOT contingency plan rule, such as Indiana’s Fort Wayne International Airport, which often get diverted flights from Chicago and Detroit. FWA executive director Tory Richardson says “The DOT rule is silent on how the coordination plans are to be handled at small airports, even though there are a few hundred of us. But we will step up … Nobody wants the black eye that happened in Rochester.”