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Originally published Tuesday, March 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Stuck on the tarmac: Airlines kept more flights waiting last year

Your chance of being stuck on a stuffy airliner for hours on a taxiway, like passengers on recent JetBlue flights, increased last year. Passengers on 7,405 planes spent...

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Your chance of being stuck on a stuffy airliner for hours on a taxiway, like passengers on recent JetBlue flights, increased last year. Passengers on 7,405 planes spent at least two hours — and sometimes much longer — out on airfields waiting to take off.

Travelers sat for two to five hours on 7,369 departing flights after leaving the gate — and for more than five hours on 36 others. The total was up from the previous year's 6,715 but still well under the record 8,115 of the year before that.

Two other planes were parked for more than five hours after landing, reported the government's Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Complaints by passengers kept for hours on parked jets within the past three months in New York, Chicago and Austin, Texas, have reignited demand for a law that forces airlines to let people off planes if they've been sitting on runways for more three hours.

"There is one bottom line that will create consistency and a lack of confusion among the general public: that's a passenger bill of rights," said Kate Hanni, a California real estate agent who recently formed the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights.

Hanni and her family spent more than eight hours aboard a grounded American Airlines plane at Austin Bergstrom International Airport after their flight was diverted from Dallas due to weather on Dec. 29.

On Valentine's Day, passengers on 10 JetBlue airliners spent from five to 10 ½ hours sitting on runways at John F. Kennedy International Airport because of icy weather and gate congestion.

Following the JetBlue incident, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a bill that would prohibit airlines from keeping travelers stuck on the tarmac for longer than three hours.

Days after Boxer filed the bill, on Feb. 24, United Airlines kept a flight from California sitting on the tarmac at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport for seven hours.

Airline industry spokesman David Castelveter said the number of delays on airport taxiways, though in the thousands, is still small compared with the millions of flights every year.

"As horrific a situation as that must be for travelers, it is still an extremely low number," said Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transport Association.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the 7,405 flights sitting on runways for more than two hours last year was about one-tenth of 1 percent of all 7,141,922 flights.

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The number of flights stuck on taxiways for more than two hours has climbed unevenly from 2,247 in 1995, peaking in 2004 with 8,115. The airports reporting the most taxiway delays of three hours or more are Chicago O'Hare; Newark, N.J.; New York LaGuardia and New York JFK.

"Unfortunately, the number of delays is going to get worse before it gets better, until we transition to a satellite-based air traffic control system," Castelveter said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is in the process of transforming the air traffic control system, which is based on radar and radio communication, to one that allows pilots to navigate from the cockpit using satellite signals. The project is expected to take years and cost many billions of dollars.

Most taxiway delays are caused by weather. In 2004, six times as many outbound flights — 594 — were parked on taxiways for more than five hours than in any other year between 1995 and 2006. That was one of the worst years for thunderstorms, which are especially disruptive to air traffic.

The airline industry opposes efforts by the government to set limits on the amount of time passengers can be kept in parked planes. Airline officials say the limits would result in more delays and disruptions of passenger service.

Castelveter said a passenger who needs to get somewhere might prefer sitting on the runway for a few hours to risk having the flight canceled or further delayed because the pilot is required to taxi back to the gate.

During the late 1990s, increasing flight delays sparked a similar consumer movement to set minimum legal standards for customer service.

Airlines blocked those attempts by agreeing to a voluntary code of conduct that they have not always followed. That code doesn't promise to let passengers off planes sitting on the ground for hours; it does say airlines will meet passengers' essential needs for food, water and medical attention during such delays.

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