Here we go again! Another tarmac stranding incident — beware of outraged talking heads on TV

By | October 30th, 2011

It seemed eerily familiar: A JetBlue aircraft, a freak storm, passengers stranded on an aircraft for hours — and all happened near the media capital of the world.

Except that it wasn’t Valentines Day 2007, the infamous ice storm that cost JetBlue its golden reputation, made a small-minded mainstream media obsessed with tarmac delays and led to tough but largely unnecessary new government rules on tarmac delays.

It was happening right now, in real time.

I was alerted to the stranding incident yesterday evening, when Marc Mucklow, a director for an office supply chain in Palm Beach, Fla., left a comment on my site saying he’d been trapped on a JetBlue plane in Hartford, Conn., for more than five hours.

He was taking me to task for a column in which I suggested we were going overboard with proposed new laws against tarmac delays.

“So much for it not still happening,” he wrote about the delays.

I’ll deal with Mucklow’s comment in a minute. But first let’s review a few details of this incident.

There’s a massive Nor’easter moving up the East Coast and the JetBlue flight was caught in it.

Let’s go straight to the tape.

Here’s what we know: The nightmare began when Flight 504 from Fort Lauderdale to Newark couldn’t land because of low visibility. After circling the airport, the flight was diverted to Hartford.

Once the flight landed, JetBlue tried to refuel the aircraft and return it to Newark. But it was unable to move the aircraft back on to the runway, and as a result, it went nowhere between 2 p.m. and 9 p.m. Here’s a play-by-play by someone who was on the plane.

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Most of the passengers took the delay with good humor, even as the flight ran out of food and the toilets overflowed. But a few were understandably outraged.

“Everybody is freaking out here,” one traveler reportedly said. “They’re tired of it.”

JetBlue issued a statement yesterday evening apologizing for the incident, saying it was doing “everything possible” to ensure its customers were being cared for. (Update: JetBlue has posted an explanation on its blog.)

But JetBlue’s apology rings somewhat hollow, because it is in effect taking responsibility for the weather and for other circumstances that appear to be completely beyond its control. A massive snowstorm had hit the New York area. The airport reportedly wouldn’t tow the plane back to the runway.

“They have done everything they could,” one passenger told a Miami NBC affiliate, when asked about the airline’s efforts. “It is not JetBlue’s fault.”

I think everyone understands that tarmac delays won’t ever go away. (And, for the record, I’ve never claimed they’d been eliminated.) But the fact is they were — and still are — exceedingly rare.

Are they worth the government’s legislative scrutiny? Maybe. But there are many, many other issues that are more pressing and affect far more travelers, from price transparency to federal pre-emption. Some would have us believe this isn’t just the most pressing issue affecting air travelers — it is the only issue worthy of our attention.

And here’s the scary part. (After all, it is Halloween tomorrow.) Get ready for an earful of nonsense from self-appointed consumer advocates in heavy pancake makeup during the next news cycle. CNN has you on speed dial.

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These so-called “experts” will tell us that the government must pass laws that would prevent tarmac delays. It’s an incredibly naive and simplistic solution to a complex problem. By most accounts I’ve heard, this latest tarmac incident was unavoidable. No law could have made the plane move any faster.

I sympathize with those who were trapped on the plane. It’s a horrible experience. Truly horrible.

But expecting us to drop everything to pursue another useless law — that would be the real horror.

(Photo: D R ust/Flickr)

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