Stuck on an Airport Ramp? – "You Can’t Fix Stupid!"

By Robert Mark on September 3rd, 2009

For some time, I have stood firmly on the side of the people who believe a law is needed to keep airline passengers from ending up trapped on the ramp inside an airplane for hours at a time. But I think I’m starting to be swayed. Part of my ambivalence is related to a number of industry folks I’ve spoken to over the past few months.

First, my bias.

I’ve only been held captive by an airline once or twice. The longest was on American Airlines at Tampa trying to get back to O’Hare when traffic delays to that hub were still a persistent nightmare. We sat over four hours before ATC waved the green flag to go. The APU was running so at least we didn’t roast, but the airline was pretty stingy with everything else. 767-10 Why DO they treat people like that? Anyway, at the two hour point, some passengers became more than restless. By hour three, they wanted off and American obliged as they marched off the aircraft with carry-ons in hand.

Everyone is not always lucky enough to have the option to leave however. There was of course the regional jet stuck at Rochester MN and the Sun Country jet stuck at JFK for 6 hours last week to keep the issue alive. All really seem to smack of some airline employee making some pretty stupid decision that ignored the people who pay the bills, the customers. The result? Some people are demanding a passenger bill of rights to force the airlines to treat people humanely.

The Air Transport Association’s David Castelvetter told me, “It is perplexing how these incidents continue – yet they are rare. In June, 42 out of 557,594 flights were delayed more than four hours.” Little comfort, I’d note, if you’re on one of the 42 airplanes. “There is a renewed focus on this issue, honestly – the focus never waned, however clearly we need to do more,” he added. But what to do? Sun Country recently put a rule in its pilot operations manual that leaves no doubt about what action should be taken when. I asked David if many other carriers had these kind of rules in place. He said he’d not heard of any others.

But why not. Adding a rule seems so simple.

The Real Problem

I’ve spent no small amount of time thinking about the Passenger Rights legislation that’s currently making its rounds on the Hill, trying to look at it as a pilot, a passenger and a marketing guy. We had Kate Hanni from the Coalition for an Airline Passenger’s Bill of Rights on Jetwhine a few years back and I even signed a petition to get something moving. But as I’ve listened to both impassioned parties – Hanni and the ATA – try to muster support for the cause, I think I’m changing my mind about the value a new piece of legislation.

Part of the reason was a conversation I had with Southwest Airlines’ Senior Director of Operational Performance, Steve Hozdulick. Steve Hozdulick JetwhineSteve charmed me with some of that fancy lingo the Southwest people always toss around, the kind of lingo that only a few airlines dare even use these days. He spoke about the real cause of the kind of problems that leave passengers clawing at the windows on the ramp, while mentioning of course that he didn’t think a Southwest Airlines aircraft was one of those 42 in June by the way.

“We have procedures in place when there are extended delays,” he told me. “But the most important issue is telling the customer what is going on.” Many of the chaos noted in these ramp delays stem from inattention to the folks in back, although most people believe the ExpressJet crew did everything it could to fix the problem. Hozdulick explained the strategic advantage Southwest owns over its competitors. “We operate differently from linear carriers because we can avoid a hub when there is a problem. We also have very definite system triggers that alert us to a problem in the making,” he added. “At the 60-minute mark, for example, we begin investigating a situation much more closely.”

One reason he doesn’t believe a law is needed is that, “We tailor our response to the traveler and the situation. What works in Lubbock Texas might not work in Boston. And let’s not forget that of the 42 airplanes on the ground in June, we really heard almost nothing from anyone probably because most of those situations were handled correctly. The responsibility to communicate with the customer has to be met and you have to be honest with them. I think it’s OK to say you don’t know at times.” He added that Southwest is constantly watching for these kind of ramp problems and always on the lookout for a way to deliver a better overall service to the customer.

A Law?

Would a new law help? It would certainly make a lot of people feel better, no doubt, but as a comedian I once heard (whose name completely escapes me) said, “You can’t fix stupid.” And isn’t that what we’re all really reacting to … some airline employee making making some arbitrary, stupid decision?

As a former airline pilot, I always wondered what latitude the cockpit crew might wield in this kind of situation. ATA believes the need to nix a law in the bud focuses on safety of passengers, to be certain no one gets off the airplane during a thunderstorm for instance. While that’s a worthy concept, I think it misses the point. What about the crew? Why don’t they do something else?

Paul Rice Jetwhine I asked Paul Rice, First Vice President of the Air Line Pilots Association.

“Sometimes it is physically impossible to park at a gate because they’re blocked/occupied, no station people are assigned to the gate, they’ve gone off shift, been reassigned, or the aircraft doesn’t fit on the gate, CRJ’s or ERJ’s on an unmodified narrow body jetway, B747’s on a narrow body jetway, Rice said.

“Remember, this isn’t like operating on a General Aviation ramp. If you discharge people onto a controlled, secured, airside ramp the captain will face discipline, likely from company and FAA, fines likely from FAA or airport authority, and/or license suspension from FAA.  Remember, even if you taxi onto a gate where the jetway fits or a ramp spot where you can load and unload someone from outside the airplane must assist – and if the company chooses not to send assistance … you’re stuck short of declaring an emergency.  Great system, eh?”

So how does a new law fix this? Honestly it won’t.

ATA believes there is a problem with some of their member airline’s operational answers to these problems – or lack of them at times as I see it, but “certainly not justifying a bill with a mandatory three-hour rule. The consequences will be significant, more delays, cancellations, inconvenience as crews time out.” And we haven’t even begun to talk about enforcement of any new law.

Whether we like it or not, the real solution is going to need to come from the airlines themselves which is not the answer many want to hear right now. A law will add new pressure, but it won’t force change. Airlines do think in terms of dollars, so they might just change if passengers had the courage to vote with their feet and not patronize a carrier that treats them poorly. Right now though, most passengers only care about how cheaply they can grab the next ticket, rather than on overall value. What we seem to be learning again is that you get what you pay for.

Rob Mark, editor

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9 Responses to “Stuck on an Airport Ramp? – "You Can’t Fix Stupid!"”

  1. DisgruntledFlyer Says:

    It seems like common sense could solve this one. But being modern America, I guess we need to resort to lawsuits and legislation. I’m sure Congress will get it squared away.

    But it could be a slippery slope. What happens when there’s a delay after take off? After how many spins in the hold can a passenger demand that the plane divert? We’ll have to go back to a minimum cockpit crew of 3… PIC, SIC, & Lawyer-In-Command. Sadly, this may be cheaper than the lawsuits to come.

    And what if there is a Congressperson onboard [I hear there were only 4 military bizjets for Nancy to choose from last Memorial Day!]? Surely we can’t expect them to endure the same inconveniences we do.

  2. Michael Says:

    Part of the problem with trying to pick a higher-quality airline to fly on is…how do you pick? If you go looking on the Internet you’ll find people enraged at every single one of them. How do you decide which enrages the fewest customers? If you are one of those people who flies twice a week, I guess you will form your own opinion, but those of us who fly every few years don’t have much personal experience to go on, and maybe your previous experience from years ago isn’t current enough to be useful anyway.

  3. Bill Palmer Says:

    I agree with Paul Rice’s statements above.

    As far as the other airlines go, I can tell you that Northwest, for one, has had a ramp delay policy in place for a long time that allows (requires) the captain to declare a kind of return-to-gate recovery when the ground delay has reached two hour mark going out, or 1 hour coming in (the policy has exceptions – but that’s the general idea).
    This was instituted (as I recall) shortly after a freak ice storm in DTW in the early 90’s had airplanes stuck out on the ramp for up to 5-6 hours. I was one of them. We had no idea it would be that long. We kept getting milked along in 20 and 30 minute increments by ATC, airport authorities, and the deicing crews (who were not expecting this storm [nobody was] – so manpower and warm fluid were in short supply).

    The policy is also clear that pilots will keep passengers informed of delays and updated on a regular basis. (actual minute values are specified, but I won’t quote them here).
    So, no, Southwest is not the only airline to take a responsible approach to this.

    No law would have changed a thing, unless they can write a law that we’ll always have good weather, runways will never need to be closed for plowing, crews won’t run out of duty time, equipment will always be in tip-top shape and never out of commission, adequate staff will always be available, etc.

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    And these are just the comments from those of you who posted. I have a few more interesting private responses as well.

    All of these run the gamut of the concerns, from which airline WOULD I choose to when do the lawyers get more involved and the reality of the flying world as Bill Palmer and Paul Rice explained.

    No one ever PLANS to make people sit in the cabin with no food, no water and no info. Things happen for sure.

    While I don’t believe a law will fix this, the airlines are forced – yet again – to focus on that customer service problem that they need serious work on.

    And too, it only takes a few incidents at Delta or United or American to make customers forget all the other times they flew the same carrier without a problem.

    As someone said in one of the private notes however, that should be the airline’s training problem, not the customers.

  5. Ron Says:

    When conditions in the cabin reach the point where food and water are exhausted, toilets are overflowing, etc. then the captain should declare an emergency and deplane the passengers. It’s inhumane to keep revenue passengers in conditions which even Guantanamo inmates don’t endure.

  6. Randy Says:

    Ron White is the comedian that says “You can’t fix stupid”

  7. Bonita J. Lehto Says:

    No more rules or laws, we have enough!

  8. National Air Disaster Alliance/Foundation Says:

    […] And, Jetwhine has a nice commentary from last week onthe effectiveness (or not)of a legislativ… […]

  9. Air Travel Safety Tips | change-direction.com Says:

    […] Stuck on an Airport Ramp? “You Cant Fix Stupid!” For some time, I have stood firmly on the side of the people who believe a law is needed to keep airline passengers from ending up trapped on the ramp inside an airplane for hours at a time. But I think Im starting to be swayed. Part of my ambivalence is related to a number of industry folks Ive spoken to over the past few months. First, my bias. Ive only been held captive by an airline once or twice. The longest was on American Airlines at Tampa trying to get back to OHare when traffic […]

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