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Numbers Don't Lie: Millions of U.S. Travelers Grounded Yearly

Millions ofairline passengers are stuck in planes on the ground every year at US airports with nearly 60,000 departures delayed between one and two hours in 2006,government figures show.

A couple ofdozen flights annually are held between the departure gate and the runway formore than five hours. While inconvenient, they do not approach the servicedisaster experienced by hundreds of JetBlue Airways passengers stranded for upto 10 hours with an ice storm raging outside their planes in New York lastweek.

Nearly400,000, or 5.6 percent, of the 7.1 million commercial flights last year at USairports experienced departure delays of 30 minutes to an hour after pullingaway from the gate, according to Transportation Department statistics.

Nearly60,000 flights, or less than 1 percent of total departures, were held ontaxiways for up to two hours. More than 1,000 planes experienced delays of atleast three hours and 36 were stuck for more than five hours.

The figureshave remained constant for several years and cover the industry's economic boomof the late 1990s and this decade's worst-ever downturn. But financial andschedule pressures on airlines can make it more difficult to cope with weatheror other problems, especially at congested airports, experts have said.

JetBlue, ina good public relations move, issued a "bill of rights for its passengers". Theairline is also seeking to limit damage to its reputation and head off possiblepro-consumer legislation in Washington amid a decline in its share price onTuesday, offered to financially compensate passengers for delayed flights.

"Themarketplace is holding JetBlue accountable, and like competitors before them,the pounding will lead to positive change," said Kevin Mitchell, whoadvocates for corporate travel managers as chairman of the Business TravelCoalition.

The JetBlueincident, a similar one involving American Airlines in Austin, Texas, in December, and recent statistics showing that airlines mishandled more than 4 millionbags in 2006 have boosted pressure on industry to pay closer attention tocustomer service.

Congressclearly wants airlines to take steps on their own rather than draftlegislation. The airlines have been in touch with key lawmakers, acongressional aide said.

"Ithink JetBlue and American have addressed how to handle these delays and madeadjustments to their operational procedures," said David Castelveter, aspokesman for the lead airline trade group, the Air Transport Association.

"Therewill always be room for improvement which should be done cooperatively, notlegislatively," Castelveter said.

Thereaction by JetBlue's chief executive David Neeleman was favorably received byone key lawmaker.

"Thisis a positive step by JetBlue to signal that it is taking the events of thepast week very seriously," said Rep. Jerry Costello, an Illinois Democratand chairman of the House of Representatives aviation subcommittee. "It ispreferable for airlines to meet this challenge head on, but if they do not, theCongress will take action."

In theSenate, Democrat Barbara Boxer of California and Republican Olympia Snowe ofMaine introduced legislation over the weekend that would permit passengers toget off a delayed flight after three hours. The bill would also requireairlines to provide food, drinking water and "adequate" restroomfacilities during delays.

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