Feds probing JetBlue, AA tarmac delays

Last Updated 1:50 p.m. ET

JetBlue Airways and American Airlines are facing huge U.S. fines Monday after many of their passengers sat for several hours in jets stranded on a snow-covered tarmac at a Connecticut airport this weekend.

The Department of Transportation's aviation consumer protection division opened an investigation Sunday into the JetBlue tarmac delay that occurred over the weekend, according to a statement. The Department is also looking into several other possible delays.

Passengers on at least three JetBlue planes and one American Airlines plane say they were stranded on the tarmac at Bradley International Airport, near Hartford, Conn., for seven hours or more after being diverted from New York-area airports on Saturday.

The ordeal continued after they were let off and had to spend the night on cots and chairs in terminals.

A JetBlue spokeswoman, Victoria Lucia, confirmed in an emailed statement that six of its planes, carrying a total of about 700 passengers, were diverted to Hartford as a result of a "confluence of events," including equipment failures at Newark and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport that prevented planes from landing in low visibility.

She declined to specify how long the planes sat on the tarmac at Bradley, but noted that 17 other flights with different carriers were also diverted to airport.

Once the planes landed at Bradley, Lucia said that intermittent power outages at the airport made refueling and deplaning difficult.

Heavy snow on Saturday disrupted thousands of flights over the weekend. According to FlightAware.com, which monitors air traffic, there were 1,261 flight cancellations.

The nor'easter also knocked out power lines, leaving millions without power and hampering airport operations.

Andrew Carter, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel of Florida, who was traveling to cover the Miami Dolphins game against the New York Giants, took off from Fort Lauderdale for Newark Liberty at around 9 a.m. After being diverted to Hartford, the plane sat on the tarmac between around 1:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., he said.

Carter said the crew ran out of snacks and bottled water for the last few hours of the delay.

"The toilets were backed up. When you flushed, nothing would happen," said

Kate Hanni, executive editor for FlyersRights.org, said she got calls and emails from passengers and worried family members regarding at least four flights that were stranded on the tarmac for up to 10 hours.

Brent Stanley and his wife were on one of those planes, an American Airlines flight that had originally been headed to JFK after taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris.

After being diverted and landing in Hartford at 2:30 p.m., Stanley said passengers were given various reasons for being held on the tarmac, including the need to refuel and de-ice and the airport's limited capacity for handling international flights. He and his wife were eager to get back home to their two young sons in Lake Zurich, Ill. But they realized they didn't have it as bad as the parents who had infants on the plane.

"There was a lady in front of us with an 18-month-old daughter," Stanley said. "Another woman came by to borrow diapers because we couldn't get to our luggage."

Stranded passengers rest on cots inside Bradley International Airport, a day after a snowstorm, Oct. 30, 2011.
AP Photo/Jessica Hill

After spending the night at the airport, Stanley was lucky to find two seats Sunday on an afternoon flight home to Chicago. But the headache isn't over yet; his luggage was headed to JFK, because the Hartford airport crew wasn't able to handle international luggage, he said.

An American Airlines spokesman, Ed Martelle, said the passengers weren't allowed off the plane by customs at the airport. Martelle did not know the exact number of American planes that were diverted to Bradley or how long they sat on the tarmac.

Matt Shellenberger, who was on a JetBlue flight from Boston to JFK, said his plane was diverted to Bradley International and sat on the tarmac for seven hours.

The crew picked up trash regularly and handed out water and snacks and "everyone held their cool," he said. But his frustrations grew with each status update; the reasons for the delay kept changing as the hours passed.

Early on, passengers were told that the plane was just being refueled and would fly out soon, Shellenberger said. Then they were told it was being de-iced. Then there was an emergency on another plane.

"We were told we were the third plane in line to get to the gate when we landed," he said. "Then we stayed on the plane for seven hours."