Hundreds of passengers on at least half a dozen other flights reported similar delays after thunderstorms downed trees, flooded roads and left thousands without power in the Washington area. The collapse has raised questions about whether the industry is prepared for the summer travel season as it grapples with ongoing labor shortages and weather-related disruptions that have long been its main source of delays.
The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights Sunday night at National, as well as Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports, until conditions improve. But at the hardest-hit National, the backlog has apparently left the airport without enough gates to accommodate all arrivals.
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According to flight-tracking site FlightAware, more than a quarter of flights due to arrive at National on Sunday were delayed, while another 14% were canceled. Of the departures, nearly 30% were delayed while 19% were cancelled.
National and Dulles saw gusts of up to 59 mph as the storms unfolded.
Despite a surge in demand for air travel, airlines have cut schedules in recent months while hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer, when weather-related delays – compounded by staff shortages – left tens of thousands of blocked customers. Airlines are trying to replace more than 50,000 workers who have left the industry since the start of the pandemic. Thousands of recent hires are still in training.
While airlines say they are focused on running reliable operations, some travellers, including those caught up in Sunday night delays at National, said frequent disruptions forced them to rethink transportation air.
Eric Shierling’s patience was already exhausted when he arrived in Washington. His original flight from Birmingham, Alabama, which was due to leave early on Sunday, was canceled and the flight he was booked on was delayed several times. He had hoped his long day was almost when he landed at the National at 12:24 a.m. Monday, only to have the captain announce another problem.
“The pilot told us there were no gates because everyone arrived at the airport at the same time,” said Shierling, an engineer on the project.
When he looked out the window and saw two more planes parked on the right and two more on the left, his heart sank.
It would be four hours before passengers were allowed to leave the plane, and then he still had to catch another flight to Connecticut, where he was headed for business. The crew did their best, he said, providing snacks and water, even breaking into a stockpile of treats reserved for first-class passengers.
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Delays that spanned two days resulted in additional expense and hassle.
“I’m mad and I’m mad,” he said as he waited on Monday. He was originally scheduled to fly to Bradley International outside of Hartford, a 30-minute drive from his yard, but the only flight available on Monday was to Albany, about 90 minutes away. “I wouldn’t be in this situation if my original flight hadn’t been cancelled. This is what makes me so angry with American (Airlines).
Passengers said airport officials denied requests from Americans to use shuttles that could transport passengers to the terminal, as well as requests to bring planes closer to the concourse so that passengers can be escorted into the building.
Officials from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which handles operations at the national airport, declined to comment. Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the domestic airport, referred questions about Sunday night’s events to individual airlines.
In a statement, American Airlines officials blamed the weather.
“A small number of arriving flights experienced delays in disembarking while waiting for available gates at the terminal,” the statement said. “We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience and thank our team members who worked diligently to resolve the situation.”
@loriara it’s 2:45 a.m. and I’ve been stuck on the tarmac at Reagan National with people from 7 other flights for over three hours with no end in sight. The airport authority has not approved any method of getting us off the planes. I take this as an SOS @AmericanAir
— Thais Austin (@thaisaustin) May 23, 2022
The Department of Transportation tightly regulates tarmac delays that occur before takeoff or after planes land.
Under a rule put in place in 2010, airlines are required to release domestic passengers within three hours, while international passengers must be able to exit within four hours. After two hours, airlines are required to offer water and a snack while ensuring the toilets are working.
The settlement was put in place after high-profile incidents in which travelers were stranded on planes for 10 hours or more. These cases are being investigated by the department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.
It was unclear Monday whether American Airlines would face fines for the delays. Transportation Department officials did not respond to inquiries about Sunday.
Arlington resident John Rodriguez said he was returning home Sunday from a trip to Birmingham. His original flight was scheduled to land at 8:30 p.m., but the flight he was re-booked on did not land until after midnight. He and the other passengers spent four more hours sitting on the plane.
Rodriguez said he could see at least half a dozen other planes that also appeared to be stuck. Flight attendants handed out cookies and water, while the captain offered hourly updates, he said.
Outside the airport, nearly 40,000 customers lost power Sunday night in Virginia, according to PowerOutage.US. As of Monday evening, only a handful of customers were still without power, according to Dominion Energy. Power has also been restored to Pepco customers in the district and Maryland, the utility said.
Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.
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