Snow creates logjam at Charlotte's airport

slyttle@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 19, 2013 

Federal transportation officials said Monday they will investigate what caused a massive traffic jam on Charlotte Douglas International Airport runways Saturday night that forced passengers to sit in planes on the tarmac for several hours.

Some of those passengers might have waited more than three hours, a violation of federal rules. And hundreds of travelers were stranded overnight at the airport because they missed connecting flights.

Several passengers said they waited more than two hours for their planes to taxi to the gates. The gates were not accessible because outbound jets were waiting to be de-iced, according to airport officials and passengers.

One passenger said the pilot on his flight told travelers the logjam occurred because air traffic controllers failed to enact a ground stop, which would have prevented takeoffs and departures during the bad weather.

Some passengers pointed fingers at the Federal Aviation Administration, but a spokeswoman for the FAA said air traffic is under the jurisdiction of the federal Department of Transportation.

Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the DOT, said his department “will investigate these tarmac delays, as we do with all reported tarmac delays over the limit in our rules.”

Federal aviation rules enacted three years ago, following an incident in which passengers on a jet sat for six hours on the tarmac at a Minnesota airport, limit the wait on domestic flights to three hours.

The airlines pay the penalty for violating the three-hour rule, and they can be fined $27,500 per passenger.

One official contacted Monday, who asked not to be identified, said some of the delays probably exceeded three hours Saturday night.

“My pilot said he had never seen anything like this in 27 years of flying,” said passenger Chuck Cavalaris, of Knoxville, Tenn. He was among the many whose arrival at the gate was delayed, forcing him to spend the night at the airport.

According to passengers, the problem seemed to peak around 6:30 p.m.

Snow started falling about 4 p.m. at the airport, and 2 inches fell in less than 45 minutes. Snow continued to fall lightly for several hours afterward, and it forced airport personnel to de-ice jets that were at the gates, preparing for departure.

“The snow really came down hard, and it was a bad situation for de-icing,” said Michelle Mohr, a spokeswoman for US Airways, which has its largest hub in Charlotte.

Lee Davis, a spokeswoman for the airport, called Saturday’s effort “a major de-icing event, as all aircraft requested de-icing.” Two years ago, Charlotte Douglas International took over responsibility of de-icing from US Airways.

Davis said 179 aircraft were de-iced after 4:15 p.m. and said the “process itself worked as it was designed to work.”

But with jets apparently waiting at the gates for de-icing and the large numbers of jets still landing, a backlog developed.

Passenger Bob Wozniak said his plane landed about 7:10 p.m.

“I knew something was seriously wrong, as I gazed out my window and saw what appeared to be an endless amount of planes in front of us, littered about the taxiways, waiting to get to their gates,” Wozniak said.

He said his jet slowly crept toward the gate, taking 2 1/2 hours to get there after landing. During all this, Wozniak said, planes continued landing.

“As another plane would land, the tower would have to find another place to park them in a waiting pattern to get to the terminal,” he said.

One passenger said the pilot on his plane said air traffic controllers were “supposed to install ground stops. They lifted the ground stops, and they let the airplanes continue to arrive here.”

A ground stop is ordered by flight controllers in bad weather. It prevents planes from landing or taking off and is used in the case of severe thunderstorms, strong winds, fog or wintry precipitation.

Once the plane backlog cleared, the problem shifted to the concourse. Hundreds of passengers were stuck in Charlotte for the night after missing connecting flights.

Mohr said US Airways and airport officials did all they could to help passengers.

“Obviously, we felt bad for what happened,” Mohr said. “Our primary responsibility is the well-being of passengers.”

She said US Airways and airport personnel assigned staff members to spend the night at the airport, to help find cots, blankets and food for stranded passengers. Those involved in the effort included Terri Pope, US Airways’ Charlotte hub vice present, Mohr said.

Davis said the airport delivered several pallets of bottled water to the terminal and handed them out to passengers. Several restaurants remained open through the night.

Davis said about 1,300 cots and 700 mats were available to travelers, along with blankets.

US Airways then scheduled additional flights Sunday, to help passengers get on their way, Mohr added.

But some passengers said the overnight airport conditions were harsh.

“At some point, the Red Cross was brought in to distribute blankets and cots, but this was not until 3 in the morning,” Wozniak said. “And they definitely did not bring enough supplies. Most of us did not even know that the Red Cross was on site, because there was no information given to us.”

Lyttle: 704-358-6107

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