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posted: 5/2/2010 12:01 AM

Frustrations take off with flight delays, cancellations

Air Pockets

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Last week on a flight to Boston, I sat next to a young woman who was about to live her dream. For five years she had run marathons all over the world hoping to qualify for the big one - the Boston marathon. Last year in Chicago, she did just that. And this week she would be one of the lucky ones to reach her goal. But for nearly 400 other Boston marathon hopefuls, dreams went up in ashes. Literally.

And they weren't the only ones to find themselves running behind schedule. According to some reports, 7 million people may have been disrupted by the cloud of ashes that blew over Europe from a volcano in Iceland.

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This may be the largest single cause of flight cancellations in the world. But it's certainly not the first. Anyone who travels has experienced the frustration of extreme flight cancellations and delays caused by acts of nature.

Early on in my flying career, I was grounded in Switzerland because of dense fog. Because this weather pattern sometimes lasts days, we boarded the plane and hoped for a break in the clouds. We served meals, played a movie and chatted with 126 passengers. Eight hours later, we sent all the passengers to a local hotel. Three days later, after serving the same meals and watching the same movie, we were finally airborne. Passengers were too spent to complain.

Last winter, Natalie Kremeier sat on the runway in Denver with two small children for three hours. Her dream vacation turned into a virtual nightmare. Natalie's sanity was up in the air long before the aircraft was. But the one silver lining for her was the lady seated across the aisle. She took one of the children and played games with her until the plane was ready.

While nobody on any of these flights would ever want to repeat the experience, most would agree that Mother Nature has the upper hand when it comes to canceling travel plans. And the only positive that comes out of these horror flights is fodder for the next cocktail party.

But what irks travelers the most is how the airlines and airports handle the delays.

"I don't want the airlines to take chances and fly when it's not safe," said frequent flier Dave Johnson. "But I think they should be prepared for the 'what ifs' and have a plan in place to make delays go smoother."

Dave's brother Larry agrees. "You can only push people so far. When airports and airlines force people to sit on an airplane for eight or 10 hours without food or water, it's inhumane and frustrating. There's no excuse."

Apparently the government agrees. According to the Department of Transportation, a new rule will give passengers stuck on the tarmac for more than three hours some recourse. If the delay is not safety related, it could cost the airline more than $27,000 per passenger. And passengers stuck with more than a two-hour delay, must have access to working toilets as well as drinking water.

But the new rule could have the opposite effect. In order to avoid severe fines, airlines may discontinue service to some airports, which could cause more disruption.

According to some pilots, the only way to solve the problem is to develop ways to make aircraft and airports more capable of dealing with weather-related problems. This might require new aircraft and airport designs and higher staffing at airports rather than government controls.

The experts tell us to expect Iceland's volcanic action to repeat itself. Unless we find ways to equip airports and aircraft to handle the problem, we could easily again find ourselves not on airplanes waiting to take off, but sitting on our ashes.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached at gailtodd@aol.com.

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