Avoid Trapping Passengers on Planes
Let's switch our focus from
cheapest/easiest for the airline to fairest/best for the
Scheduling too many
flights to leave at the same time, combined with runway
closures and weather problems, can make for massive delays
when things go wrong.
In the last 25 years, the
number of airline flights within the US has doubled. In
the last 50 years, that number has almost quadrupled.
There's been an explosion of private plane traffic too.
Airports today are over-crowded
and overstressed, and many airports struggle to provide
runway capacity to handle the flights coming and going.
The system for managing
airplane traffic, on the ground and in the air, was never
designed to handle the number of flights it now must manage.
Add the occasional weather or
operational problem, and colossal 'traffic jams' with planes
stuck on the ground for hours prior to getting their turn to use
a runway can sometimes occur.
We need to change the system.
The Current Method of Flight
At present airports use a
very simple way of managing when planes get their turn to take
off. Basically, a pilot physically puts his plane into the
line of planes on the taxiway, and planes takeoff in strict
order based on their physical position in this line of lanes.
This is a very simple system
to understand and operate, and at times when there's only a
slight amount of delay, it is perfectly acceptable.
But when things start to go
wrong, and when the line starts to lengthen and delays extend,
it creates a negative feedback loop that encourages 'bad
behavior'. Pilots will rush to get their plane into line,
so as to bring forward their eventual departure time, and the
negative consequences of going out of line grow - if you lose
your place near the front of a very long line, you might add
hours more delay to your flight.
Add to that the fact that
the gate facility is probably needed for another incoming
flight, and that the person who dispatches a plane is not the
pilot, but a ground staff member who probably gets a bonus
calculated on the very shortsighted single measure of whether
the plane pushes back from the gate on time or not, not the more
relevant measure of when the plane actually takes off, and
there's a lot of pressure for planes to leave the gates as early
as possible, whether there's any realistic chance of the plane
getting to take off in the reasonably near future or not.
The Current Problem
It is perhaps unavoidable that
sometimes things go wrong, and a departing flight ends up unable
to leave for hours and hours and hours, with delays extending
little bit by little bit.
This most commonly occurs
when bad weather is affecting both the airport the flight is
departing from, and also the airport the flight plans to travel
to. The weather delays at the departing airport might make
for an hour or so of delay at congested times of day between
when a flight pushes back from the gate and when it finally
takes off. One reader, a former pilot, reports on being at
times in a line of 56 airplanes waiting their turn to fly out of
O'Hare, it taking several hours before finally being able to
Then, if during the wait to
depart, bad weather affects the destination airport, the
departing flight might have to wait on the ground at the airport
it is flying from until it can be given clearance to fly on to
In such cases, the pilot is
reluctant to return back to the gate, because if he does so, he
loses his place in the line of departing flights, so that
when he gets clearance from his destination airport, he might
then have to wait another hour or more to fly from the airport
he currently is at.
Add to that the operational
reality that most times, taxi ways are 'one lane' and one way only.
They are wide enough for a line of planes to queue up behind
each other, but not wide enough for planes to turn around and go
back, or for one plane to overtake another plane in the line.
At most airports, the only way for a plane to turn
around and return to the terminal would be for it to take the
next turn onto the active runway and then taxi back along the
active runway to taxi-ways for incoming planes. While the
plane was taxiing along the active runway, it would be
preventing other planes from either taking off or landing, and
in a case where all flights were already massively delayed,
that's not likely to be a very popular move or one lightly
agreed to by the air traffic controllers.
Other problems arrive
basically because many times there is no clear single person who
is responsible for, and accountable for, passenger inconvenience
in such situations, and so the passengers get overlooked and
have no 'voice' in the situation. Indeed, if the
passengers should start to complain, they run the risk of being -
whenever/wherever the plane finally gets to a gate - arrested and
charged with all sorts of draconian federal offenses as a
The DoT's Solution and Its
From time to time, a very
high profile scenario involving a particularly egregious delay
on the ground occurs, and while the airlines have done an
excellent job at ensuring that no negative consequences flow on
to them as a result, this has been slowly evolving to the point
that the Department of Transportation announced earlier this
year it would start fining airlines that kept people
trapped on planes for more than three hours.
The DoT has stated that from
29 April 2010, it will fine airlines up to $27,500 in situations
where passengers aren't deplaned after being stuck on board a
flight for three hours. In addition, the airlines must
also provide passengers with food and water during the period of
The threat of a potential
fine of up to $27,500 per passenger is a fairly motivational
event. A plane with 200 passengers on board could
potentially attract a fine of up to $5.5 million for a single
In a remarkable twist of
logic, the airlines are now pretending that any fine would
always be for the maximum amount, and are pleading poverty,
claiming they can't afford to run the risk of fines, so they'll
just cancel any/all flights if there's even the slightest risk
of the flight being delayed on the ground.
This is a nonsense claim.
The DoT would
only levy the maximum fine in the most severe of circumstances,
and of course it would be sensitive to real-world
operational issues if they really/truly did prevent an airplane
from returning to the gate. In most situations, the DoT
shows itself to be consistently supportive of the airlines, and
reluctant to impose penalties, preferring instead to get
agreements to ensure that future examples of problematic
behaviors don't reoccur.
Such penalties as they do rarely
impose are generally little more than de minimus amounts and
sometimes may even arguably be less than the benefit the
offending airline enjoyed from its improper conduct.
However, no matter what the
reality of airline fines might prove to become, the very changed
situation from 29 April will be that airlines now must
anticipate suffering some type of negative consequence if they
mistreat passengers and imprison them on a plane for an extended
period. The threat of fines - backed up, hopefully, with
the reality of commercially significant fines if/when airlines
still mismanage their flights - will be a motivator in the
situation where any shred of basic human decency has clearly
The Airlines Desperately Try to
The airlines are now
switching their story. Until now, they've maintained
there's no need for any legislation to compel them to do
anything at all, because - they say - such events are
extraordinarily rare, and when they do happen, there's nothing
that can be done to resolve them, legislation or not.
Now they are saying - in as
many words - that such events are actually quite common, and if
they are to run the risk of stiff penalties, they'll instead
start cancelling flights any time there's the slightest chance
of a possible ground delay. They're suggesting that they
are already cancelling thousands of flights in some situations
due to projected weather problems and the potential for three hour and
longer ground delays.
The airlines are also
pretending that any and all delays would always attract the full
maximum fine, no matter how mild the delay might be or how
excusable/unavoidable it might be.
These are all nonsense
claims, but the airlines are aggressively making them at
present, and are backing them up with requests for blanket
exemptions at airports which might be susceptible to operational
delays (ie JFK at present due to one of its runways being closed
So - let's understand the
logic of this. The airlines were first saying that there
were so rarely any delays at all, that there was no need for any
oversight or punishment. Now they're saying that delays
are commonplace, and they're also saying that in the cases where
we - passengers - most need protection from airlines casually
trapping us on planes for as long as they wish, they should be
given blanket exemptions.
A New Approach to Ground
Management of Flights - Overview
It is very unfortunate that
the airlines have reacted the way they have. Instead of
acknowledging a problem and developing ways to solve it, they
instead ask for permission to perpetuate it, free of any
There are many ways these
issues could be solved. Not all solutions are complete and
guaranteed to be 100% effective always, and most solutions come
with some costs or operational changes associated. But
surely anything is better than nothing, and isn't there an
implied obligation on the airlines to do all they fairly can to
transport us from origin to destination as close to the times
they promise and the manner they describe?
So here is a simple solution -
admittedly with some backend additional issues to be resolved -
that all of us can immediately see. It is this : change
the way flights are scheduled for take-off. Instead of
physically requiring planes to 'stand in line', why not
implement the 'take a number' approach to scheduling - the same
that you'll see at Baskin Robbins on a busy
weekend afternoon in summer.
Baskin Robbins, and many other places,
use this very simple
concept. When they're not busy, you can walk in, maybe wait for a
person in front of you, then get served. But when they do get
busy, they have a 'take a number' system and serve people in the
order of the numbers people take.
Why can't airplane departures at busy times (or for that
matter, all the time) also work on a 'take a number' plan too?
If the high school students working part-time at BR can manage
their 'take a number system', you'd think highly trained pilots
and dispatchers could do the same thing for airplanes, too.
How The System Would Work
Here's how it would work. A flight has (for example) a scheduled
2pm departure. The pilot and the ground schedulers all know, at 1pm or earlier, what gate
plane is at, and can be told which runway will be assigned to
take off from, so they can calculate, to within a few seconds, how
long it will take from starting the engines, through pushing
back from the gate, turning around, and taxiing to the holding
point prior to taking off. Let's say, for the sake of this
example, it is, in total a 15 minute activity.
They also know, to within a plus or minus three or four minute
time frame, how long it will take to load the passengers onto
the plane. Let's say this is a 20 minute activity. So - do the
sums. To take-off at 2pm means to push-back at 1.45pm, which
means to start loading the plane at 1.25pm.
Now for the part of the process the airlines don't comprehend. What should happen, therefore, is that at about 1.20 pm, the
pilot or ground controller contacts the control tower and asks to be assigned
take-off slot at 2pm. The control tower responds, either
approving that slot, or giving another later slot. Just as
the pilot knows the numbers and lead-times to get his plane
loaded and to the take-off point, the control tower knows how
many departures they can handle per hour or per ten minutes or
whatever, and so they can queue up flights for departure - not
physically, but by assigning them numbers, just like at the ice
cream store on a summer Sunday.
So, if the airline gets a 2pm slot,
the gate staff know to then authorize
the boarding of the plane. But if they are told 'Sorry, we can't
get you airborne until 2.20pm' (or whatever time) they do the
sum and work out that a 2.20pm departure means to start
boarding the plane at 1.45pm, and so do not allow the boarding
to start until that time.
The beauty of this 'take a number' system is that no-one
boards a plane until the flight has been given a guaranteed take-off
time (and, even more emphatically, planes never start their
engines or push back from the gate until their takeoff time is
So - get this, airline executives - not only does that make for
massively happier passengers, it also saves you jet fuel (oh yes
and protects the environment too due to fewer carbon emissions). You're not going to have your jet engines expensively running up
operational hours, getting closer to major overhauls, and
burning jet fuel while powering the plane stuck on the runway.
Shortage of Gates - Problem and
On the face of it, a
potential problem caused by this new system of not
boarding a plane until it can then immediately leave the gate
and taxi without delays to take-off is that, in its simplest
form, some planes will be spending much longer at the gate.
Instead of planes waiting for three hours at some desolate
remote part of the airport, full of passengers, they might
instead be at a gate, tying up space that might be needed by
It is easy to see how an
airline with only one gate and with a steady series of flights
scheduled to use the gate - perhaps one flight every 45 minutes
- would have problems if its gate was tied up by a plane that
was waiting an extra hour or two for a departure time.
This is an extreme example.
The more gates an airline has access to, the more flexibility it
has, but problems may still occur if the airport has a general
set of massive delays that are holding up all flights for an
hour or more.
But this isn't an unsolvable
problem. First, let's consider the 'flip side' of delays
to outgoing flights.
Delays affect incoming and
First, the other side of the
coin, for an airport experiencing across the board delays for
all departing flights is that, almost always, the airport is
experiencing similar delays for all incoming flights too.
So, while a departing flight
might end up spending an extra hour at the gate waiting its
turn, guess what : The incoming flight that was scheduled
to next use the gate has also been delayed, perhaps by an
offsetting and balancing amount, so the gate remains
available for the delayed outgoing flight.
Nine Solutions to Gate
Here are nine different ways
to handle and resolve problems that might sometimes occur
if/when delayed flights causes congestion at the gates.
Not all solutions will work,
for all airlines/airports, nor will they all work all the time,
but, count them! Here are nine solutions, many of which
will work most of the time.
Shouldn't the airlines be
tasking their highly paid and highly qualified executives to
solve these challenges, rather than just passively saying 'Oh
this wouldn't work' without looking for solutions.
1 : Have empty planes
wait away from the gate
Now for an amazingly
simple solution to gate congestion. When an incoming
flight has unloaded its passengers and freight, if it doesn't
expect to be able to make its scheduled push-back time from the
gate, and if other incoming flights will need to access the
gate, why not have the plane towed away from the gate to a
holding area, and then returned back to the gate when the times
comes due for it to load its passengers.
2 : Remote load planes
Here's a second solution.
If the plane needs to leave the gate before it is ready to load
its passengers, bus the passengers from the gate to the remote
hardstand where the plane can then be waiting for them.
This is a normal procedure
done by many airports (even major airports such as Heathrow) as
a standard way of compensating for too many flights and too few
gates. Why not make it more universally available at all
airports that can foresee times when flight delays and gate
congestion will occur.
3 : Remote unload planes
Have planes, upon arrival,
go to a designated passenger unloading hardstand, where
passengers leave the plane and then are bussed to the terminal.
The plane waits at the
remote point, discharging its luggage and freight and then
reloading its new outgoing luggage and freight, and only moves
to the gate when it is ready to accept passengers.
4 : Remote load and
Why not go all the way, and
simply have overflow areas for unloading and loading, with some
flights, in overflow situations, never going to a gate at all.
5 : Speed up gate
In the 'good old days'
before jetway airbridges, planes would almost always have two
sets of airstairs - one at the front and one at the back,
allowing passengers to get off and on the plane twice as quickly
as with only one entrance/exit. These days only a very few airports have any double entry/exit jetways, and even fewer airports have triple
entry/exit jetways (which are used for the new A380 planes).
Why not double all jetways
so they can connect to two doors on the plane rather than one?
Okay, so it would cost money - let's say it would cost $1
million for a second jetway at a gate, and let's say there'd be
an extra $1000 a month in operating costs for the second jetway.
But let's also say that the
gate services 10 flights a day, each with 150 passengers.
With perhaps a 15 year amortization on the jetway itself (at
4%), this translates to a cost per passenger of 20¢.
Who wouldn't pay 20c to save perhaps 10 minutes of time on
boarding a plane, and another 10 minutes of time when deplaning?
The cost is trivial and should not be an impediment at all.
6 : Dedicated load and
Why not set up a 'work flow/production
process so that planes first go to a generic 'arrivals gate'
where all the passengers are quickly unloaded through multiple
exits (indeed, why limit to only two jetways - why not have four
on each side of the plane, and speed the passenger unload time
Step two would be to move
the plane to the next stage where luggage and freight are
unloaded and loaded, and then finally, step three, move the
plane to a departing gate where passengers are waiting to board
But impossible? Of course not.
7 : Mandatory gate
At some airports, some
airlines will deliberately control more gates than they need as
a way of restricting access to the airport, preventing other
airlines from adding service.
Normally, if you can't get
gate facilities, you can't add flights to an airport, so
sometimes airlines will keep many (more than ten) gates they
don't really need, purely as a way of blocking other airlines
from establishing service.
Commenting on this process
in general is beyond the scope of this article, but, when bad
weather starts to affect airport operations, if there are unused
gates in one part of the terminal(s) and planes needing gates
elsewhere, the airport should be able to instantly reassign
planes to spare gates so as to ensure that all gates were being
used to their best advantage.
8 : Realistic resource
Here's a solution that goes
one step back in the process. A large factor in the delays
that arise is that airlines create impossible schedules - both
internally themselves, and externally when considered in the
context of other airlines operating at the same airport.
As a simple example, if an
airport can handle one departure every minute, an airline that
schedules three departing flights all at the exact same minute
is clearly promising an impossibility that it can't achieve.
And if four other airlines
are also scheduling three flights each for the same minute, you
have an even greater impossibility. Even with everything
working to the best most efficient manner possible, only one of
the 15 flights will leave at the assigned time. The others
will each be a minute later and later, with the last flight
having a 15 minute delay.
Every airport knows its
design capacity for flights, and should create a slot system
where the day is divided into however many take off and landing
times there are. Airlines would be assigned, or bid/buy on
the slots they wanted, and if a slot has already been
sold/assigned to another airline, then it can't be reused by any
The airlines currently play
a double sided game of let's pretend. On the one hand,
they say 'let's pretend that your flight will depart at (eg)
8am', knowing full well that this is unlikely.
But then they compensate the
other way by saying 'let's pretend the total time for your
flight will be 130 minutes' when they know that the real time is
115 minutes and they've then added 15 extra minutes to
compensate for their impossible promises of take off time (and
to a similar extent, of landing time too).
This is bad for us - it
wastes time with flights being shown as taking longer than they
do - and it is bad for the airlines too. If they
accurately scheduled their flights, they could get better
airplane utilization, potentially saving themselves millions of
dollars a year.
9 : Build more gates
Last but not least, if
there's such a shortage of gates as to regularly risk passengers
being stuck on planes for 3 hours or more, and if none of the
preceding eight solutions will reduce the problem down to a
trivial level, there's an obvious action item that needs to be
adopted. Build more gates.
Most airports are levying up
to $4.50 per passenger to pay for all sorts of 'improvements',
plus they're getting landing fees from airlines, gate rentals,
terminal rentals, income from stores in the terminals, parking
fees, and every other imaginable sort of fee.
Let's have them spend that
money first on ensuring that the service promises and standards
the airport and its airlines extend, and which we expect as
passengers, are achievable and reliably honored.
The present problem whereby
airlines imprison their fare paying passengers on planes for
hours on end has arisen because this is the cheapest and easiest
'solution' to the problems that occasionally occur with our
presently overloaded air traffic system.
No-one has cared about
passenger comfort and convenience, and no-one has been
answerable or responsible for the impacts and inconveniences
foisted onto each airline's customers.
If airlines have to face
consequences for making the comfort and convenience of their
passengers their least important consideration, then there's a
good likelihood that - for purely venal reasons - the airlines
will end up treating us more decently.
But until then, when confronted with the
upcoming reality of potentially sizeable fines for future acts
of passenger abuse, what do the airlines do? Do they rush
to put in place emergency and contingency plans so as to ensure
they never end up stranding passengers for 3+ hours and risking
No, instead they protest and seek blanket exemptions, and
threaten even direr consequences if the new regulations are
As this article shows, all
the problems raised by airlines, and all their excuses for why
it isn't their fault, and/or there's nothing they can to, are
invalid excuses rather than genuine reasons.
The airlines need to switch
their focus from inventing reasons why they can't treat their
passengers well, and instead concentrate on how to solve any
problems that do exist and how to positively treat their
passengers as the source of their income and major
raison d'être, rather than as if they are unwanted inconveniences.
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19 Mar 2010, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.