Passengers left on planes for hours at Reagan National after storms


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Thais Austin wanted to get home to the District after a weekend visit with family in Jacksonville, Fla. Instead, she said, she and other passengers were stuck on the Reagan National Airport taxiway for three hours Sunday night, unable to exit their plane.

“At first they said ‘Oh, it will be a minute,’ ” Austin said. “Then it was an hour and another hour. The time just kept ticking by.”

Hundreds of passengers on at least a half-dozen other flights reported similar delays after thunderstorms downed trees, flooded roads and left thousands without power in the Washington region. The meltdown raised questions about whether the industry is prepared for the summer travel season as it struggles with continued labor shortages and weather-related disruptions that have long been its biggest source of delays.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights Sunday evening at National, as well as at Washington Dulles International and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall airports, until conditions improved. But at hardest-hit National, the backlog apparently left the airport without enough gates to accommodate all of the arrivals.

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According to flight-tracking site FlightAware, more than one-quarter of flights scheduled to arrive Sunday at National were delayed, while an additional 14 percent were canceled. Among departures, nearly 30 percent were delayed while 19 percent were canceled.

National and Dulles saw gusts up to 59 mph as the storms rolled through.

Despite a surge in air travel demand, airlines have trimmed their schedules in recent months while hoping to avoid a repeat of last summer, when weather-related delays — compounded by staffing shortages — left tens of thousands of customers stranded. Airlines are trying to replace more than 50,000 workers who’ve 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 travelers, including those caught in Sunday night’s delays at National, said frequent disruptions are causing them to rethink air travel.

Eric Shierling’s patience already was running low by the time he made it to Washington. His original flight from Birmingham, Ala., slated to leave early Sunday, was canceled and the flight on which he was rebooked was delayed multiple times. He had hoped his long day was nearly over when he touched down at National at 12:24 a.m. Monday, only to have the captain announce another issue.

“The pilot told us there were no gates because everybody had gotten to the airport at the same time,” said Shierling, a project engineer.

When he looked out the window and saw two other planes parked to the right and two more on the left, his heart sank.

It would be four hours before passengers were allowed to leave the aircraft, then he still needed to catch another flight to get to Connecticut, where he was headed for business. The crew did its best, he said, providing snacks and water, even breaking into a stash of goodies reserved for first-class passengers.

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The delays that stretched over two days brought added expense and hassle.

“I’m angry and I’m mad,” he said Monday as he waited. He originally was scheduled to fly to Bradley International outside Hartford, a 30-minute drive to his worksite, but the only available flight Monday was to Albany, about 90 minutes away. “I wouldn’t be in this situation if my original flight hadn’t been canceled. This is what makes me so mad at American (Airlines).”

Passengers said airport officials turned down requests from American to use shuttle buses that could ferry passengers to the terminal, as well as requests to move planes closer to the concourse so passengers could be escorted into the building.

Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages operations at National Airport, declined to comment. Rob Yingling, a National Airport spokesman, referred questions about the events of Sunday evening to individual airlines.

In a statement, American Airlines officials blamed the weather.

“A small number of arriving flights experienced deplaning delays as they waited 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.”

The Department of Transportation closely regulates tarmac delays that occur before planes take off or after they land.

Under a rule put into place in 2010, airlines are required to let domestic passengers off 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 also ensuring that restrooms are working.

The regulation was put into place after high-profile incidents in which travelers were stranded on airplanes for 10 hours or more. Such cases are investigated by the department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection.

It was not clear Monday whether American Airlines would face fines for the delays. Department of Transportation 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 had been scheduled to land at 8:30 p.m., but the flight he was rebooked on didn’t land until after midnight. He and fellow passengers spent four more hours sitting on the plane.

Rodriguez said he could see at least a half-dozen other planes that also appeared to be stuck. Flight attendants distributed cookies and water, while the captain offered hourly updates, he said.

Outside the airport, nearly 40,000 customers lost power Sunday evening in Virginia, according to PowerOutage.US. By Monday evening, only a handful of customers were still without electricity, according to Dominion Energy. Power also had been restored to Pepco customers in the District and Maryland, the utility said.

Matthew Cappucci contributed to this report.


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