Grounded for Seven Hours

AA passenger wants changes after epic flight delay

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    After a seven-hour wait on the ground, one traveler wants American to change how it measures delays.

    As he sat for seven hours, grounded on an American Airlines plane, Keith Hicks wondered if he would ever get home.  

    Hicks was headed back to Dallas with his family after a vacation in New York. It was a trip that turned into an odyssey.

    Man Calls for Airline Delay Changes

    [DFW] Man Calls for Airline Delay Changes
    A Dallas man says he sat on a plane for seven hours wondering if he'd ever get home. (Published Thursday, Sep 3, 2009)

    And now it has him calling for changes in the way the airline deals with long delays.

    "The way it was handled was not appropriate," he said.

    American Airlines has a policy designed to prevent passengers from being stuck on the ground on a plane for more than four hours.

    But as Hicks learned, enforcement of the four-hour rule all depends on when the airline starts the clock.

    According to figures provided by American, Flight 759 boarded at about 2:30 p.m. on July 31. The plane sat at the gate for more than two hours as the pilots waited for storms passing over LaGuardia Airport. 

    At 4:45 p.m., the plane left the gate, but then sat on the tarmac for another two hours and 45 minutes because of more weather delays.

    "The passengers on the plane started getting frustrated, started getting a little unruly," Hicks said.

    Finally at 7:30 p.m. -- five hours after the passengers boarded -- the pilot headed back to the gate for more fuel. 

    But passengers were told if they got off to get food or stretch their legs, they would not be allowed to get back onto the plane, Hicks said. And passengers who got off could be stuck in New York for days because other flights were full, the airline warned.

    "You certainly felt it would be punitive if you got off that plane, that you weren't going to be going home anytime soon," Hicks said.

    So they waited for what turned into another two hours at the gate. 

    Finally, at 9:48 p.m., seven hours after passengers boarded the flight, the plane took off for Dallas. It took Hicks and his family 10 1/2 hours to make the trip, roughly the amount of time it takes to fly from New York to Moscow.

    But despite the seven hours the passengers spent on the ground, an American Airlines spokesman insisted the company did not violate its four-hour rule.

    It turns out the airline does not count time that the plane is parked at the gate, even if the door is closed for some of that time, or if passengers are told they cannot get off and then reboard.

    "We don't count that in the time," AA spokesman Tim Smith said. "We count, on our four-hour policy, time away from the gate when the doors are closed."

    Regardless of when the airline started the clock, the effect was the same, Hicks said. It still felt like being trapped for more than four hours. He said the airline's offer to leave felt like a non-offer because it came with the threat of being stranded for days.

    "At a minimum, I think we should have been able to go back into a secure area and just stretch our legs and get off the plane," Hicks said. 

    The airline insisted it followed its protocol by giving passengers the option to get off, while also telling them the consequences of leaving the plane.

    "We did follow our policies, and ultimately everyone got where they were going," Smith said.

    Hicks said he believes it's time for the airline to rethink the way it clocks delays.

    "It should have been handled much better," he said.