WASHINGTON -- Even with delays running at record levels, airlines still are doing too little to ensure that passengers don't get trapped for hours on the runway, the Transportation Department's inspector general said yesterday.
"Not only are there more delays, but also longer delay durations," Calvin Scovel III told the House Transportation Committee. "These rising flight delays are leading to more onboard tarmac delays."
Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters asked the inspector general earlier this year to review how airlines might minimize onboard delays such as the one in February when an ice storm forced JetBlue Airways Corp. to strand about 1,200 passengers on runways, some for nine hours or more.
Scovel's report will be in the spotlight again today when the Senate Commerce Committee questions officials representing Delta Air Lines, Continental Airlines and American Airlines.
The inspector general found that in the first seven months of this year, nearly 28 percent of flights were delayed, canceled or diverted, up from 24 percent in the same period last year.
Delays are now exceeding the record numbers set during the peak travel year of 2000, and they're getting longer. In 2006, the average arrival delay for domestic flights was a record 54 minutes. But this year, the average arrival delay is nearly 57 minutes.
With so many delays, passengers are more often getting stuck on board because of poor planning, Scovel said. "While weather was the primary contributor to the extraordinary flight disruptions, it was not the only factor in passengers being stranded on board aircraft for long periods of time," he said.
Delays are increasing because of reduced capacity amid surging demand, the study found. With so few empty seats, airlines have no way to accommodate customers from canceled flights.
Scovel recommended four main steps for helping passengers:
Airlines should clearly spell out their plans for minimizing on-board delays and off-loading passengers, and then stick to those plans.
Airport operators should become more engaged in planning for extraordinary flight disruptions.
All airlines should adopt the proven best practices of some carriers, such as canceling flights before passengers leave home in bad weather.
The Transportation Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, airlines, and airports should implement outstanding recommendations, some dating to 2001, to improve customer service.