Fourteen American Eagle flights were stuck on the tarmac at Chicago O'Hare for more than three hours on a single day in May when thunderstorms led to hundreds of cancelled flights.
The Department of Transportation said Thursday that a total of 16 planes waited on runways for more than three hours that month, the most recent for which statistics are available. That's four times the highest number of any month since the rule threatening huge fines for such delays was implemented on April 29 of last year.
Before May, there were only 20 tarmac delays of three hours or more. No airlines have been fined yet because the government hasn't determined that any of the delays were warranted one. There are exceptions in the rule for safety and security issues.
The longest delay in May was a flight from El Paso, Texas, on May 29 _ the same day as nearly all the other delays for the month. It sat on the tarmac in Chicago for nearly four hours.
May 29 was a dicey day at O'Hare. American Eagle said that runways were closed three times for about 40 minutes each time due to lightning, and air traffic controllers stopped traffic and held planes at gates throughout the day.
Air traffic controllers lifted restrictions on arriving planes in mid-afternoon, American spokesman Tim Smith said. Although American Eagle had already cancelled more than 100 flights earlier in the day, many of the arriving planes at O'Hare got stuck on the tarmac because gates were not available to unload passengers.
Smith said options for getting passengers off planes at O'Hare somewhere other than a terminal are very limited. American Eagle considered unloading passengers on the taxiway and busing them back to the terminal, but there was too much congestion.
The other two long tarmac delays involved an American Eagle flight from New York's JFK to Indianapolis on May 29 and a May 11 Southwest Airlines flight from Denver to Seattle. Overall about 10,700 flights were cancelled in May, or about 2 percent of scheduled flights. That's about the same rate as in April but nearly double the cancellations in May 2010.
Despite an increase in long delays, airlines were on-time more often in May than in April, but they were late more often than in May 2010. About 77 percent of flights were on time in May compared with 75.5 in April and 79.9 percent in May 2010. Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines and AirTran Airways had the best on-time rates this May. American Airlines, its regional affiliate American Eagle and ExpressJet had the worst.
The rate of lost or damaged luggage rose during May from both the month and from a year ago. There were 3.52 reports per 1,000 passengers for mishandled baggage in May, up from May 2010's rate of 3.23 per thousand and April's rate of 3.24 per thousand.