Virgin Atlantic on the hot seat for tarmac stranding

Why was the carrier allowed to violate the three-hour limit?

Published June 25, 2010 5:01PM (EDT)

A Virgin Atlantic Airways plane sits on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., Wednesday, June 23, 2010.  Passengers on this plane, which was grounded by bad weather en route to Newark, N.J., from London, spent more than four hours stuck on the tarmac.  (AP photo/Journal Inquirer, Jim Michaud) MANDATORY CREDIT (Jim Michaud)
A Virgin Atlantic Airways plane sits on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., Wednesday, June 23, 2010. Passengers on this plane, which was grounded by bad weather en route to Newark, N.J., from London, spent more than four hours stuck on the tarmac. (AP photo/Journal Inquirer, Jim Michaud) MANDATORY CREDIT (Jim Michaud)

In April, a federal rule went into effect limiting tarmac strandings to a maximum of three hours during departure delays, and 90 minutes for arrival delays. Airlines unable to meet the new constraints face fines of more than $27,000 per passenger.

The measure will affect only a tiny fraction of travelers -- according to the Department of Transportation, approximately 1,500 flights are stranded each year for greater than three hours, or one of every 6,200 -- and for reasons discussed in the column previously, I remain convinced that the rule is bound to cause more trouble than it solves. Nevertheless, this was major coup for passenger advocacy groups that had spent years lobbying for get-tough limits on extended delays. Airlines vociferously opposed the measure, but high-profile incidents in 2007 and 2009 gave the "passenger bill of rights" crowd the boost it needed.

Why, then, was a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340 stuck on a sweltering apron at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut for nearly five hours on Tuesday evening? The flight, from London-Heathrow to Newark's Liberty International, diverted into Bradley after thunderstorms clogged the arrivals paths into Newark.

It happened because the federal time limit does not apply to foreign-registered aircraft.

Expect a push to have this loophole closed.

Reports from the cabin painted a picture of tedium, heat and confusion. "A hot, dark, and miserable four-hour stretch," is how the Associated Press described it. At least one passenger was administered oxygen, and an unspecified number received medical treatment after disembarking. "The temperature inside the cabin rose and darkness permeated," said the AP. According to some passengers, the crew did not inform them why the flight was diverting, or to where.

Virgin Atlantic is a highly respected carrier known for solid customer service. This isn't the kind of thing one expects from Virgin, and it's hard to imagine it wasn't working hard to resolve things.

Perhaps it didn't happen exactly as described? Here's some food for thought:

Earlier this year I was working a flight from South America when a mechanical problem caused us to divert. During the delay, while maintenance personnel worked on the problem, cabin attendants passed out water, juice and soft drinks. The captain and I both assisted. At one point I brought ice water to an elderly woman in economy class, and gave a cockpit tour to a young boy. The temperature in the cabin remained comfortable, and everybody seemed in good spirits. We made several public address announcements explaining in detail what was happening. After about 90 minutes, we took off again.

Down in South America, in the city where we'd originated, the press had an entirely different take on things. According to articles that ran the following day, our plane had made "an emergency landing," and once on the ground passengers "were treated like animals." They were given no water, food or information. Conditions were awful, the crew was negligent, passengers were miserable, and so on and so forth.

Virtually none of this was true, and I was astonished to see such distortions -- even outright fabrications -- in print.

Now, before you start with the hate mail, it is very possible that conditions on the Virgin Atlantic plane were exactly as awful as described, and I do not find it acceptable to keep 300 people stranded on a plane for multiple hours. But with people looking for almost any excuse to fulminate against airlines these days, there's a certain risk of embellishment.

One thing I really don't understand is the supposed overheating issue. During long ground delays, crews will typically shut down the main engines to save fuel, it's true. But they do not shut off all power and air conditioning. What they do is transfer the supply of electricity and air from the main engines to the auxiliary power unit, a smaller jet turbine located under the tail. In most cases its output is adequate for whatever cooling or heating is necessary.

But if it's not, no crew would be so masochistic as to refuse to power up one or more engines. Pilots can monitor cabin temperatures from the cockpit, and/or a call from a flight attendants station -- "It's getting really hot back here and people are upset; can you do something? -- is all it should take.

One press report noted that "neither the rule that went into effect in April nor the one proposed this month would require airlines to keep air conditioning running while planes are sitting on runways, although consumer advocates have urged that." I have no problem with such a rule, but the idea that crews shut off the air conditioning in the first place is baffling. The air flow might not be as potent as it would be with the engines running, but it's there. And if things reach a certain point, an engine can be started.

As for the "darkness" in the cabin, I'm not sure I understand why it wasn't supposed to be dark. It was evening and the sun had set. Presumably many or most passengers would be trying to sleep, and so the cabin lighting would be dimmed as it normally is. Those who wanted to read could use their reading lights. (Virgin's A340s are equipped with seat-back video in every cabin, and these screens, too, should have been operable.)

As to why the plane's occupants weren't allowed to disembark into a terminal, remember this was an international flight. I would agree that coordinating an international arrival shouldn't be the elaborate logistical exercise that it is, but like it or not airlines are not allowed to disgorge hundreds of people, be they American citizens or foreigners, without the proper document checks, etc. Bradley airport, located in northern Connecticut between the cities of Hartford, Conn., and Springfield, Mass., is a common alternate airport for transatlantic flights and has its own immigration processing facility. It is a relatively small facility, however, and can be quickly swamped by sudden diversions.

Virgin Atlantic says that U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied its request to disembark passengers until more officials could be brought in, at one point telling the flight's "pilot" (there would have been three pilots on a long-haul like this; presumably they mean captain) that anybody let off the aircraft would be arrested.

Adding to the confusion, Virgin has no personnel at Bradley, and everything needed to be coordinated remotely.

What I'm sensing here is that the airline, the airport and our illustrious U.S. Customs and Border Protection team each had a role to play. And each, to some extent, dropped the ball. While it's easy to throw the blame entirely on Virgin Atlantic, things are never as clear-cut as they look from afar -- and probably aren't as lurid as the press describes them.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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