-- Vincent and Zina Mazzola, a couple of octagenarian snowbirds, expected a short JetBlue flight from Fort Lauderdale to Newark for a doctor's appointment. Instead, the couple spent 7½ hours on the tarmac in Hartford, Conn.
Fresh water ran out, closing the bathrooms. Frustrations grew as the snow piled up around the plane with no answers from the airline or the airport. Their flight was one of 23 diverted from Newark or New York's John F. Kennedy because of Saturday's snowstorm.
"It was probably the worst experience of their life," said Jeff Dobbins of Aventura, Fla., the Mazzolas' son-in-law, whose wife drove through the snow from Manalapan, N.J., to fetch her parents from the airport at 3:30 a.m. rather than let them sleep on cots. "They said it looked like a war zone."
The Transportation Department began investigating Sunday for potential fines against the airlines in the case. But the agency doesn't fine airports for tarmac delays, a gap that consumer advocates urge the department to close.
The Transportation Department adopted a rule in April 2010 for potential fines up to $27,500 per passenger for a flight left on the tarmac longer than three hours without giving passengers a chance to deplane. The department hasn't yet issued a fine, saying lengthy delays "have been virtually eliminated" since the rule was adopted.
"To date, no carriers have been fined for violations of the rule," said Bill Mosley, a department spokesman. "There have been a few flights that missed the three-hour mark by a matter of a few minutes, but in these cases the airlines clearly intended to comply with the rule."
The amount of any fine could depend on the seriousness of the violation, the harm to consumers, the airline's ability to pay and the strength of the case, Mosley said.
Kate Hanni, executive director of FlyersRights.org, who lobbied for the tarmac rule, said that one possibility is that Hartford staffing was down in anticipation of the storm. Under that scenario, planes would not have been able to easily reach gates at that airport. She is urging the Transportation Department to develop a rule for potential fines against airports in addition to airlines.
"It was a really bad storm," Hanni said. "The problem here is that the airports are not subject to potential fines, and have not kept their word."
Mosley said DOT regulates airlines for consumer-protection issues such as the tarmac rule, but doesn't have the same authority for airports.
"We do not have the same authority over airports, but we do require airlines to coordinate their tarmac contingency plans with airports," Mosley said.
John Wallace, a spokesman for Bradley International Airport in Hartford, declined to comment on details about the stranded planes pending further investigation. He said the airport remained open to accommodate the unexpected passengers.
"The airport took approximately 23 diversions on Saturday, and our resources were stretched to the limit," Wallace said. "Bradley attempted to accommodate approximately 1,000 to 1,500 passengers who were stranded here Saturday night into Sunday with cots, blankets, food and water."
Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the airports, blamed "intermittent problems" for the diversions of flights.
"During the storm, there were intermittent problems with the FAA's ground-based air-traffic-control systems at JFK and (Newark), resulting in some flights being diverted to other airports," Marsico said. "We provided assistance to the FAA to get its systems back in operation as quickly as possible."
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating what led to the diversions. "The FAA is undertaking a comprehensive review of Saturday's operations in the northeast including, air-traffic procedures, aircraft diversions, weather and equipment performance," spokeswoman Laura Brown said.
JetBlue had six flights diverted to Hartford from Newark or JFK. Tempers flared.
"I got a problem here on the airplane," the JetBlue pilot on the Fort Lauderdale flight told air-traffic controls, according to a recording by LiveATC.net, which monitors air-traffic conversations. "I'm going to need to have the cops on board."
At one point, the pilot asked for a tow. "I don't care, take us anywhere," he said.