Expert Webinar: Preventing and/or Managing Long Onboard Surface Delays

On December 7, 2016 PASSUR hosted an expert webinar focusing on surface constraints and best practices for preventing and managing long onboard tarmac delays. Surface constraints and bottlenecks are costly in terms of fuel burn, emissions, schedule integrity and passenger goodwill, along with DOT tarmac fines. This webinar presented real-world solutions to dealing with these issues.

Howie King, PASSUR’s Director of Airline Account Management, hosted the webinar (read bio here). The PASSUR guest customer contributors included Bill Tuck, Delta Air Lines Supervisor – Operations Management, Strategic Planning Team and Air Traffic and Kelvin Ampofo, Supervisory, Airport Operations Duty Manager at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

Understanding the factors contributing to surface delays is the first step to managing and eventually preventing long onboard surface delays. Factors include the following broad categories:

Good weather

  • “Blue sky” effect can lead to too many early arrivals
  • Gate conflicts caused by early arrivals leads to congestion and hold outs

Bad weather

  • Convective activity causing route and fix constraints
  • Deice activities decreases throughput rate and increases total taxi time

Bad weather tends to be the biggest factor in surface-related delays, according to Bill Tuck of Delta Air Lines, and fortunately it is the easiest to plan. Good weather or “blue sky” delays are less common, but harder to predict.

 Constrained operating environments

  • Limited surface area – such as an airport like LaGuardia
  • Single direction, single taxi lane operations affected by early pushes
  • Construction activities
  • Routine facilities maintenance
  • Emergency repairs

Passenger experience

  • Regardless of the cause, passengers typically blame the airlines. The final minutes of a trip are the ones people remember, so waiting for a gate can ruin an otherwise perfect flight experience.
  • In the age of social media, news travels fast and both the airline and airport will be mentioned in negative posts, regardless of where the actual fault for a delay lies, and even if the delay cannot be prevented or is being mitigated.
  • Failure to properly manage delays and long onboards can create passenger ill will.
  • Customer dissatisfaction can lead to a decrease in loyalty and the loss of repeat business.
  • Airlines deal with delays by having a set playbook for communicating with passengers, typically at the 90-minute mark to inform customers of egress and other needs.
  • Airports also view passenger communication as a very sensitive topic and rely on swift and continuous communication as a vital tool to manage passenger expectations.

Operating Costs

  • Increased taxi time results in increased operating costs such as fuel, crew and equipment costs.
  • Risk of violating the DOT 3 and 4-hour rules and incurring fines.

Completion Factor and Block Time

  • Lengthy delays negatively impact block, push additional delays, and potential cancellations downstream.
  • Cancellations lead to passenger rebooking complications given today’s typical load factors.
  • Gate returns are very disruptive and require resources where airports and airlines can least afford them. Airlines will sometimes actually prefer to depart and divert rather than return to gate.
  • From an airport perspective, a gate return causes disruption due to the high cost of passenger ill-will due to complicated rebookings, disruptions in terminal operations such as closed concessions, occupied gates and cascading gate changes. While the dollar cost is small, the human cost can be high.
  • From an air traffic control perspective, gate returns can lead to surface congestion as the taxiway space backs up.

Recognizing that long onboard surface delays are costly in terms of fuel burn, emissions, schedule integrity and passenger goodwill, along with DOT tarmac fines, the next challenge for both airlines and airports is how to proactively manage these unavoidable situations. The integrated PASSUR suite of tools offers solutions to make smart decisions.

Managing and Mitigating Long on Board Delays


Kelvin Ampofo shared that one of the unexpected uses of the PASSUR ATC Portal tool is planning for traffic coming to the airport. Metropolitan Washington Airports (both DCA and IAD) are gate constrained, and can also experience heavy congestion on the roadways leading to the airport. If ATC Portal predicts that there will be flight delays, the airport authority is better able to manage congestion, including alerting traffic flows on the land side, which is generally not thought of as an airport or airline responsibility.


  • ATC Portal allows users to makes decisions and share information, particularly to manage surface saturation. It is considered a proactive tool as it provides a 3-4 hour planning window.
  • An example is at LaGuardia Airport, where surface gridlock is an issue. Routes can be selected based on the “big picture” which allows users to balance arrivals and departures.




  • Near real-time PASSUR Business Intelligence (P-BI) coming soon

The discussion between the customer leads and the PASSUR Subject Matter Experts concluded that utilizing several integrated PASSUR solutions at various points in the decision process to balance surface saturation results in the ability to balance both arrivals and departures. It is this understanding of daily constraints, that allows airports and airlines to work together to have traffic flow both in and out of a location to avoid long onboard surface delays.

We are happy to answer questions or provide additional information on any of the topics raised in this webinar discussion. Please contact Howie King by email or (315) 289-9776.