As the government implements new rules on Thursday designed to protect air travelers from long tarmac delays, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has a plan to deal with stranded passengers.
Part of the plan involves “drive-by deplaning” -- busing passengers to unused gates.
The airport has purchased a $700,000 bus that can carry about 100 passengers from a plane to a terminal. The bus will be used to get passengers off planes in a hurry, especially when gates are unavailable.
Passengers will then be driven to an unused gate at Terminal E, which was abandoned by Delta Airlines. Inside, stuck passengers will be able to relax and even sleep. Play areas have been set up for children. Restaurants will stay open late.
“The goal is, if they’re not in an aircraft, in the air, then we want them in the terminals,” said Paul Martinez, the airport’s assistant vice president for operations. “They’re comfortable there. They have options.”
A separate vehicle with covered stairs allows passengers to exit the plane and board the bus in any kind of weather.
The airport started working on its plan long before the government announced its new rules, Martinez said.
The new regulations require airlines to get passengers off the ground in under three hours or face fines of $27,500 per passenger. The clock starts ticking when the plane’s door closes.
Airlines have warned the new regulations could lead to many more cancellations.
"No doubt, the three-hour rule is definitely going to bring some challenges,” Martinez said. “Seconds and minutes are very, very important."
The plan also involves better communications with airports in the region, which could end up with flights diverted from DFW.
"It all starts with, 'What's the weather doing?'” Martinez said. “And once we have early notification, we communicate that now as quickly as possible."
With increased warnings, regional airports can increase staffing and better prepare to deal with stranded passengers, he said.
During a record snowstorm in February, 31 flights remained on the tarmac at DFW Airport for three hours or longer.
But airport officials said it was an extreme case that rarely occurs.