ON TIME? Not if you're attempting to fly during the winter. In particular, not on JetBlue.

Congressional leaders excoriated JetBlue Airways on Thursday [February 15] for forcing hundreds of passengers to sit aboard grounded airplanes for up to 10 hours because of weather-related delays in New York City, and they vowed to investigate airline customer service.

The delays Wednesday at John F. Kennedy International Airport sparked renewed interest in a "passengers' bill of rights" that would allow air travelers to deplane if an aircraft is on the ground more than three hours.
The carrier has not yet resumed normal operations.

A schedule-busting siege at Kennedy Airport's JetBlue terminal that left many travelers dismayed, disheartened and distrusting seemed to ease on Monday.

A relative calm enveloped the JetBlue terminal as travelers whose flights weren't canceled managed to come and go uneventfully on Day Six of the carrier's weather-related woes.

The company said it was canceling almost a quarter of its flights on Monday but had hopes of getting back to full operations on Tuesday, almost a week after a Valentine's Day snowstorm created its travel meltdown.

Staff are discovering that you can't play tiddlywinks with aircraft.

David G. Neeleman, the company's founder and chief executive, told The New York Times in Monday's editions that he was "humiliated and mortified" by the breakdown in the airline's operations. He promised that the company would pay penalties if customers were stranded on a plane for too long.

He said the crises was the result of poor communications and reservation systems. He said the ice storm had left many of the airline's 11,000 pilots and flight attendants a great distance from where they could operate the planes. He also said JetBlue lacked trained staff to coordinate the flight crews. The reservation system had also been overwhelmed.

The airline had scheduled 600 flights for Presidents Day, even more than the 550 to 575 flights on a normal Monday. Of those, 139 flights have been canceled, JetBlue announced late Saturday night.

JetBlue Airways Corp. spokesman Sebastian White said headway was being made on Sunday, but that the cancellations on Monday were needed to make sure all flight crews had gotten the legally mandated amount of rest before taking to the skies again.

Winter storms can wreak havoc on the most meticulous of schedules, but commercial aviation is not terribly dependable as a fair-weather mode of transportation.

For December, 2006, this Bureau of Transportation Statistics piechart shows that about 71% of all flights arrived on time. The chart breaks out late-arriving inbound planes (9% of flights) from air carrier delays (8% of flights). The air traffic control system is the source of delays to another 8%, with weather delaying 1% of all flights. The Bureau has another site for additional tables.

On average, Amtrak has better on-time performance, and its on-time performance is substantially better in corridors.

The air carriers' poor on-time performance is leading to calls for a flier 'bill of rights'

Aviation delays are hardly unusual, but delays of planes that have been boarded and are sitting on runways generate unique frustration and bitterness.

And federal records show they're getting worse. In 1995, 72% of flights took off within 15 minutes of leaving an airport gate, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2006, that figure was down to 63%.

Nearly 67,000 flights were delayed at least an hour last year after they left the gate, Transportation Department figures show. That's about 1% of total flights.

One would think that with three dimensions of mobility, one could get a plane airborne and pointed in the general direction of its destination. There are capacity constraints at work.
Weather typically delays flights that have been boarded. But a more complex set of issues leads airlines to keep boarded flights on runways instead of returning them to a gate so passengers can deplane.
But there is also a breakdown in procedures.

Most airlines follow a set of voluntary guidelines they wrote in 1999 to improve service at a time when delays were prompting Congress to consider a "passengers' bill of rights." The guidelines call for airlines to inform customers regularly about delays.

But a report in November by the Transportation Department's inspector general found that, in about 50% of cases, information provided about delays "was not timely or adequate." JetBlue, which was founded in 1999 and started flying in 2000, did not sign the guidelines, the report says.

The JetBlue incident renewed congressional interest in a bill of rights. "Combined with similar incidents over the holidays, the industry has two strikes against it," said House Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Jerry Costello, D-Ill., who plans hearings on the issue. "The third strike will mean Congress considers legislation to create such a policy."

The delay that intensified pressure on airlines in 1999 involved the so-called "prisoners of Northwest" — thousands of passengers who sat grounded in airliners during a winter storm at Detroit Metro Airport. Some planes had no food or water and overflowing toilets.

On Jan. 2, 2002, passengers on dozens of planes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta waited up to 10 hours during a snowstorm. Delta apologized for inconveniencing 50,000 passengers, saying it had underestimated the storm and the time it would take to de-ice planes before departure.

Two weeks ago, Bob Thompson sat on a Continental plane in Houston's Bush Intercontinental for five hours. "The real frustration was once we got onto the runway … we sat for an hour with nothing happening," Thompson said.

The pressure to reregulate is growing.
A group called the Coalition for an Airline Passengers' Bill of Rights wants a mandatory three-hour cap on wait times as part of an 11-point list of requirements, including adequate food and water and working toilets.

The group is led by a California-based passenger whose American Airlines flight was diverted from Dallas to Austin during December storms and sat on the ground for eight hours.
The editors at USA Today concur in part.
Granted, these are extreme situations spurred by bad weather. But the airlines' response exposes such a staggering disregard for their customers that it makes you wonder if deeper forces are at work. And, indeed, they may be. Last November, the Transportation Department's inspector general reported that many airlines were failing to live up to some commitments made in 1999 to improve basic customer service.
A spokesman for the carriers' trade association offers a somewhat lame rebuttal.

We appreciate that Congress, responding to public concerns, will want to know more about the airlines' plans. We look forward to substantive discussions. One thing we all want to avoid is the imposition of inflexible government standards, which could unintentionally result in greater customer inconvenience.

Finally, delays are a forewarning: America's antiquated air traffic control system must be modernized. We need to act now, before growth in demand results in even more unavoidable delays.

Catch that Divine Passive, "must be modernized?" By whom? [Blank-out.] I'm waiting for the air carriers to offer to buy the additional traffic control equipment. Oh, wait a minute, the legacy carriers are in bankruptcy and the startups are consolidating. You mean there's no private money to improve the control system that allows the carriers to make money? So does that mean Congress appropriates money, and the taxpayers pay money, to modernize the air traffic control system? Let's do some research first. Might some of those delays be ameliorated by, for example, appropriating money for Class Six track in the Offical Region and the Great Lakes, so that a rail passenger might be able to go Chicago to Detroit in three hours or Chicago to the Cities in five or Cleveland to Indianapolis or Cincinnati at all? There's the potential to relieve a lot of pressure on the mid-continental hub airports. (Might there be a way to use some of that money as well to restore some rail-banked and abandoned freight lines so as to ease the passage of containers and reduce the call for maintenance of the Interstates for the transcontinental truckers?) Hmm, how many paper topics have I just identified?

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